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  • Clinton Accused
  • Campaign 2000

  •   Scandal May Resonate in Campaigns

    By Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, February 14, 1999; Page A1

    Hours after the Senate acquitted President Clinton, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley issued a statement saying it was time to "move past the partisanship" of impeachment and begin to rebuild trust in the political system.

    Former vice president Dan Quayle, campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination in New Hampshire, had a different take on the day's events. His statement said: "The fight for our values begins today."

    Those contrasting answers to the question of "what next" underscore precisely what a scandal-weary public may fear most, that the impeachment battle that ended in Congress on Friday will immediately shift to the arena of Campaign 2000.

    There may be no escaping it. The reverberations from the year-long impeachment drama will shape the coming campaign in ways both obvious and unpredictable. As the Quayle and Bradley statements suggest, there will be intense competition among candidates and parties in the coming months to define the post-impeachment environment to their advantage.

    "Bill Clinton's departure from office in 2001 will be greeted by a palpable sigh of relief," said Ross Baker of Rutgers University. "The country's been put on the most challenging roller coaster. I think people are disinclined to go through those scary gyrations anymore. It will influence the kind of person we choose in 2000."

    Virtually every candidate contemplating a presidential campaign will look in the mirror this weekend and see a possible answer for what the country wants after Clinton.

    Vice President Gore will see an Eagle Scout -- a candidate both loyal and pure. Elizabeth Hanford Dole will see her gender as the perfect antidote to the locker-room antics of the Clinton White House. Texas Gov. George W. Bush will see an admittedly imperfect man who cleaned up his act and who governs in a bipartisan spirit. Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes will see a Washington outsider.

    In the first hours after the Senate trial ended, strategists shaping battle plans for 2000 were cautious in their assessments of how the process will affect the campaign. But many of these strategists said that impeachment will shadow the candidates and the parties throughout the next 21 months, and there were some broad areas of agreement of where it would be felt most.

    Character, they said, will loom as a larger issue in the presidential campaign of 2000 than it has since the post-Watergate election of 1976. But they said voters may be more tolerant of human frailty now.

    Public revulsion toward the inside-the-Beltway spectacle of the past year should enhance the appeal of candidates from outside of Washington. Disgust with partisanship could reward those candidates who avoid negative attacks and focus on the future.

    Impeachment will energize ideological activists in both parties, much the same way abortion has for many years, and will intensify competition for control of the House. Republicans face a difficult struggle to maintain their narrow majority in that chamber.

    History shows how quickly the political climate can change in a presidential campaign cycle. The deep recession of 1982 that produced Democratic midterm election victories gave way to "morning in America" in 1984 that reelected Ronald Reagan in a landslide. National pride over the Persian Gulf War victory in 1991 gave way to national anxiety over the economy in 1992, and brought Clinton to office.

    Despite an extraordinary amount of activity by prospective presidential candidates the past year, Campaign 2000 has has not registered at all with the public. That is about to change. And despite the American people's professed weariness with the examination of politicians' personal lives, many strategists anticipate that the hangover from impeachment will be even more scrutiny than previously.

    "Unfortunately this probably sets the stage for the most intensive, intrusive review of candidates' private lives that we've ever seen," said Tom Rath, an adviser to former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander. "We're going to know a lot more about what these guys did in high school than any of us want to know."

    Republican pollster Whit Ayres said a recent survey he did among Iowa Republicans showed that character was the most important factor likely to influence their vote for president, while impeachment was well down the list.

    But Ayres cautioned that voters' definition of character may be more complicated than in the past. "It's easy to misinterpret that by saying if there are any skeletons in the closet they're automatically disqualifying," he said. "I don't believe that. Voters will make fairly nuanced judgments about how significant past peccadilloes are to today's environment."

    Bush (who said he has not made a decision about running) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) may be among the first to test the new character boundaries for candidates. Both have admitted to past mistakes -- Bush to heavy drinking in his twenties and thirties, McCain to marital infidelity that broke up his first marriage -- but have refused to talk in detail about their private lives.

    Still, there appears to be no escaping intrusive questions. During a recent interview with WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., Bush was asked, "Have you ever used drugs? Marijuana? Cocaine?"

    "I'm not going to talk about what I did as a child," he replied. "It is irrelevant what I did 20 to 30 years ago. What's relevant is that I have learned from any mistakes I had."

    Many Republicans argue that, despite the public's desire not to see Clinton removed from office, there will be a backlash against his presidency that could hurt Gore in 2000 -- even though the vice president has not been stung by scandal in his personal life.

    Elizabeth Dole, speaking in New Hampshire last week, said the American people deserve "a government worthy of her people," a line reminiscent of the theme Jimmy Carter used during his 1976 campaign after Watergate when he called for a "government as good as its people."

    Quayle plans to be even more direct. Kyle McSlarrow, chairman of Quayle's campaign, said the former vice president would make values like "honor, integrity and responsibility" as central to the presidential campaign debate as Social Security and education. Quayle also plans to criticize Gore's decision to stand by Clinton throughout the impeachment process.

    "Vice President Quayle believes that when a candidate is prepared to say values are important, the American people will answer resoundingly in favor of that," McSlarrow said. "The White House has very cleverly managed to shift the debate away from honesty and integrity to 'this is just about sex.' Vice President Quayle is saying 'No, I don't accept that.' "

    But Mark Penn, the president's pollster, said such a strategy would rebound against a Republican candidate because the party is seen as captive of its most conservative wing. His recent polls, Penn said, show that, by 25 percentage points, the public sees Democrats as the moderate party. The GOP's negative image and Gore's association with an administration whose record is viewed favorably by a majority of the American people, Penn said, would help the vice president in 2000.

    Many Republicans hope their eventual presidential nominee will draw attention away from their congressional wing and recast the party's image in a more favorable light.

    But strategists in both parties agreed that one clear effect of the impeachment fight is to intensify the struggle over control of the House, which will keep congressional Republicans in the forefront of the political debate between now and November 2000.

    "That's where there's a lot of emotion and there wasn't even an attempt at bipartisanship," said one Democratic strategist. "It's left a stark image in the political psyche in the country."

    As much as Republican strategists hope the public will want to remove any remnants of the Clinton administration, they fear the public may be just as likely to rid the Congress of the GOP majority.

    Given the exhaustion with the events of the past year, Quayle may be an exception in his willingness to stoke the embers of impeachment. Other candidates are likely to avoid the subject.

    "Talking about impeachment a year from now will be talking about the past and that will be out of sync with where the voters are," said Ed Gillespie, an adviser to the campaign of Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio). Added Bill Dal Col, Forbes's top adviser, "I think [the public] probably will not want to hear the word impeachment for another 120 years."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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