Commentary: Character Is The Only Shot Dole Has Left

Dying campaigns go through their own political Kubler-Ross cycle: denial, then rage, then the serenity of acceptance. The tipoff to the final stage: Reporters start writing about how "liberated" the candidate appears in the closing days of battle when artifice drops away and the all-but-certain loser returns to his home ground. GOP standard-bearer Bob Dole seems intent on breaking the cycle: He might stay angry all the way to Nov. 5.

With his double-digit deficit in the polls refusing to close, Dole unleashed an attack on Bill Clinton's character. By accusing an arrogant White House of creating an "integrity gap," the Kansan finally has raised the issue that Clinton's behavior is debasing the Presidency. In the candidates' second and final debate on Oct. 16 in San Diego, Dole went on the offensive immediately. Many Americans "see scandals almost on a daily basis," Dole responded to the first questioner, who asked about a child's plea for idealism in government. "They see ethical problems in the White House today."

OVERSEAS MONEY. Ignoring Dole's character foray, Clinton tried to stick to broad issues. "We're not well-served when we attack each other in an ad hominem way," Clinton said. But the President remains vulnerable on character. There's Whitewatergate, Travelgate, and, perhaps most seriously, Filegate. And now comes Donorgate: Did Clinton sell access to the Presidency for $900,000 in contributions from wealthy Indonesians?

The trouble is, Dole's 11th-hour attack isn't likely to alter the dynamics of the race. Dole doesn't need to remind voters that Clinton has a character problem--they know it and don't think it's disqualifying. Though some polls indicate that Dole's attacks have increased the public's faith that he will keep his promises, the assault could backfire: Other polls show the public disapproves of candidates who "go negative." What's more, Dole, a Nixon apologist during Watergate, has his own ethical shortcomings. By making an issue of Clinton's Indonesian campaign gifts, he runs the risk of raising questions about his own long Senate history of doing favors for monied interests in the oil, agribusiness, tobacco, and wine industries.

Perhaps Dole, who had to be pressured by worried Republicans to play the ethics card, knows the gambit is a long shot. By trying to go negative, Dole runs a risk that haunts most Presidential wannabes: the risk of losing ugly. But Dole is apparently prepared to take that chance. That's partly due to the frustration a wounded member of the World War II generation feels about losing to a feckless Boomer and partly a recognition that every salvo he has fired to date has been a dud.

JUST ANOTHER POL? His 15% tax cut was supposed to be the weapon that blew Clinton out of the White House. It fizzled because Dole opened a credibility gap of his own, brushing aside decades of tax-raising for a sudden embrace of supply-side economics. Voters sensed his insincerity, and many branded him as just another pol. Next, Dole tried to flay Clinton for creating a crime-and drug-crazed society. The tactic flopped when statistics showed otherwise. Then came a few weeks of sermonizing about America's "moral crisis." Still no bump-up in the polls. Finally, the Kansan distilled his pitch down to this: Elect Bob Dole because he's honest; reject Slick Willie because he's not.

Dole doesn't seem to grasp that voters generally approve of the President's shift to the right since 1994, regardless of his motivation. Nor does Dole realize that his idea of straight-shooting--giving your word to a fellow congressional conferee that a pet provision will be in the final bill--doesn't rate as a red badge of courage with America's cynical voters. Now, with nothing much to lose, Dole seems willing to play the character card--all the way to Election Day.

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