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Clinton: GOP Ads Are Bid to 'Distract'

Clinton, Reuters President Clinton at the White House on Wednesday. (Reuters)

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  • Campaign '98

  • By John F. Harris and Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, October 29, 1998; Page A1

    President Clinton appealed to voters yesterday to judge Democrats by their policies in next week's midterm elections, and to reject a new Republican ad campaign assailing his integrity as an effort to "distract you and divert your attention."

    One day after the GOP opened a multimillion-dollar campaign to mobilize voter anger at the president's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and his repeated deceptions about it, Clinton turned a Rose Garden appearance with a visiting head of state into a combination of personal defense and partisan rallying cry. Referring to the Democratic agenda, he said, "I think that's the real issue here: Are we right or are they right?"

    For his part, Clinton said, he hopes that voters can see he is trying "to atone to them for what happened and to try to redouble my efforts to be a good president," specifically citing his role in coaxing Israeli and Palestinian negotiators last week to reach an interim Middle East peace agreement.

    Less than a week before the Nov. 3 elections, the Lewinsky controversy – a subject both parties initially said they preferred to avoid – has emerged as the closest thing to a national issue that this political season has offered.

    The National Republican Campaign Committee, which Tuesday began running three anti-Clinton spots as part of a $10 million closing ad campaign, plans to add another Lewinsky-related commercial to its repertoire. That spot hits Clinton's explanations of the affair as "legal mumbo jumbo."

    The Democratic National Committee scrambled last night to raise money for a hastily produced response ad that accuses Republicans of pursuing investigations at the expense of governing. "Republicans have made removing the president from office their top priority," says the new commercial. "Haven't our families and our children had enough partisan investigating? Republicans – so focused on attacking the president they've forgotten about us."

    In addition, People for the American Way, a liberal group, will begin buying $1 million of airtime for three new commercials assailing Republicans for scandalmongering.

    Amid the clamor, Clinton seemed downright eager to join the fracas. Aides signaled before the news conference with Colombian President Andres Pastrana that Clinton was ready for questions about the GOP ads, and he seemed only to warm to the subject as the session stretched on.

    Adopting a rueful tone, he said Republicans were free to run ads about his personal life if they thought it was legitimate. "How can I object to them exercising their free-speech rights in saying what they think the election is about?"

    "I'm not trying to sugarcoat the fact that I made a mistake and that I didn't want anybody to know about it," he said. "The American people have had quite a decent amount of exposure to that." Earlier he said, "I believe that it's always best if the elections are about the American people and their families and their future."

    Clinton recited a litany of campaign issues that has been crafted by the White House and congressional Democratic leaders. The list included GOP-defeated bills to curb youth smoking and to require new patient-protection regulations for health maintenance organizations.

    Clinton's remarks capped a frenetic day of Democratic defense. Starting with Vice President Gore, nearly every prominent Democrat rushed to decry the GOP ads as "vicious, venal, vindictive, vitriolic and, yes, pathetic," as party chairman Steve Grossman put it.

    Fielding a question after an event trumpeting the wonders of modern computers, Gore predicted the GOP attacks on Clinton's character would backfire. "Attacking the president and investigating the president has apparently become an obsession with the Republicans," he said. "The American people will look at these ads and say enough is enough. Get on with the business of the American people and talk about the real issues."

    Later in the day, Grossman and other Democratic leaders called a news conference to blast Republicans for what they viewed as a diversionary tactic. The choice for voters, said Rep. Albert R. Wynn (Md.), is: "Do they want to vote for the party that stands for substance and issues that matter and improving the living standards for working families? Or do they want to wallow in these kinds of innuendo and discussions of sexual transgressions?"

    After knocking on doors in his St. Louis district earlier in the day, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt told reporters "people do not want to hear more of this." Yet Gephardt acknowledged the massive financial advantage enjoyed by the GOP makes it difficult for Democrats to respond to the avalanche of attacking ads coming out of Washington.

    The National Republican Congressional Committee expects to spend a total of $25 million on advertising this fall, officials said. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, by contrast, hopes to spend about $7 million on its commercials.

    Democratic fund-raisers worked the phones last night attempting to extract more money from their most loyal donors with a direct appeal for cash to pay for the new response ad. The most optimistic projections are that the effort may raise $1 million.

    "We're not going to be able to compete in every place but we're going to have a response in as many places as we can," said Gephardt.

    Polls show a majority of Americans want to keep Clinton in office rather than impeach him, but Republicans hope the new ads will excite conservative voters who feel otherwise. "The election to a great extent is still a referendum on morality and ethics in Washington," said Republican consultant Keith Appell, who advises clients such as the Christian Coalition.

    Yet Ralph Reed, a GOP consultant and former director of the Christian Coalition, called the NRCC ads a "calculated risk" aimed at boosting the party's expected gains into the double digits. "If you're going to make Clinton the issue, you have to tie it to a set of issues," he said.

    Privately, some GOP advisers said they were baffled by the last-minute gamble, especially because it appears Republicans will make gains Tuesday. "The message is good but the delivery system is questionable," said one party strategist who added it would be easier to energize core supporters by telephone or direct mail. Moderate or independent voters "are less receptive to the message."

    Other Republicans said the party has little else to campaign on because Congress did not pass much legislation this year and the recent budget agreement produced more victories for the White House than for conservatives. "Look, what else have we got besides Clinton?" said one frustrated strategist.

    While professing optimism voters will side with him, Clinton showed some sensitivity to the Republican argument that his relationship with Lewinsky and his lying about it are inconsistent with the family values themes he embraced in 1996. A reporter asked how he suggests people answer the question posed by one of the GOP ads: "What do you tell your kids?"

    At first Clinton declined to answer, implying it was not his fault his affair was put on national display. "I have answered the . . .‚question as far as I should," he said.

    Minutes later, he returned to the subject unprompted, reiterating an assertion he made last month at a prayer breakfast – that the Lewinsky controversy, for all the discomfort it has caused him and the public, may ultimately hold valuable lessons.

    "I think what people ought to say to their children is that when someone makes a mistake, they should admit it and try to rectify it, and that this is an illustration of the fact that those rules should apply to everyone. ..." he said. "And that when people do that, if they do it properly, they can be stronger in their personal lives and their family lives and in their work lives."

    Amid the scandal, Clinton has discarded a tool popular presidents often use to get out the vote – hitting the road to appear at campaign rallies. Yesterday, he was literally following a Rose Garden strategy – making his partisan shots and repeatedly stressing the importance of turnout on Election Day as the setting autumn sun bathed the proceedings in golden hues.

    While their joint appearance was dominated by domestic questions from U.S. reporters, Clinton's warm welcome for Pastrana was a remarkable moment in its own. It offered a stark contrast to the Clinton administration's treatment of Pastrana's predecessor, Ernesto Samper, who was forbidden to come here. The administration regarded Samper as fatally tainted by millions in drug cartel money that financed his election campaign, and in 1996 revoked the visas of Samper and seven political allies after the lower house of parliament voted to absolve them of having connections with drug dealers.

    Staff writer Thomas W. Lippman contributed to this report.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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