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Christian Coalition Attacks Clinton

Politics: Convention speakers denounce his character, record. President fares well with evangelicals, socially conservative voters, recent polls show.

September 14, 1996|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — Even as Bob Dole's campaign escalates its criticism of President Clinton, conservative social leaders at the annual convention of the Christian Coalition joined in Friday with sharp attacks on the incumbent's character and record.

With recent polls showing Clinton running unusually well with evangelical Christians and other voters who embrace traditional social values, a succession of speakers denounced the president in speeches far more pointed than almost anything heard at the Republican National Convention last month.

Indeed, the Christian Coalition gathering was almost a counter-Republican convention, with the stage turned over to the conservative leaders and messages generally muted at the GOP gathering in San Diego.

In an unusually barbed address, Ralph Reed, the coalition's executive director, accused Clinton of failing to set a proper moral climate for the nation. Reed also joked about the sex scandal that forced the resignation of Clinton campaign advisor Dick Morris. He also lashed the president for the rise in teenage drug use that has occurred during his tenure.

"Now I ask you: Is that the kind of moral leadership we need in the White House?" Reed asked, to a ringing chorus of "No's" from the estimated 4,800 activists gathered at a Washington hotel.

Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, who has emerged as a key surrogate for Dole, criticized Clinton's character in even sharper terms.

"I think he's unreliable, and I think he's unprincipled," Bennett told the conference. "If we don't think someone is fit for office, by God, we ought to be able to say so."

Later in the day, the gathering gave a tepid, at times openly hostile, reception to Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot.

As Perot delivered his usual stump speech, which is heavily tilted toward economic issues, he was frequently interrupted by calls of "abortion" from the crowd--a reference to his support for maintaining the legality of abortion. During his remarks, many convention-goers held up signs that read: "Pro-Life, Pro-Family."

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Perot seemed occasionally flustered, and his speech ended abruptly when music blared through the loudspeakers at a point when he appeared to be merely pausing before shifting topics.

"Ross was hitting on all the wrong cylinders," said Mike Smith, a Christian Coalition activist from Bethel, Ohio. "It's not 'the economy, stupid.' It's that America's soul is floundering. He didn't address that, and that's why he won't get much support from the pro-family movement."

The sharp words about Clinton from Reed and other conservative leaders came as the Dole campaign prepares to air a new advertising blitz criticizing the president for a recently reported increase in teen drug use that has occurred during his administration.

While criticizing Clinton on several issues--including his judicial appointments and his veto earlier this year of legislation to ban a rarely used form of late-term abortion--Reed and other speakers zeroed in on the drug issue.

While broadly praising Clinton's recent initiative to regulate tobacco advertising aimed at young people, Reed pointedly suggested it was motivated by a desire to shift attention from the trends in drug usage. And he linked the tobacco regulation with reports that the Secret Service has required more frequent random drug testing of 21 White House aides after background checks revealed they had used drugs before beginning their White House assignments.

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"Before you try and tell us to get tobacco out of our house," Reed said, "you need to get illegal drugs out of the White House."

White House officials disputed Reed's criticism, noting that Clinton has established a "zero-tolerance" policy that requires dismissal of any aide who tests positive for drugs.

Mark D. Fabiani, a special associate counsel in the White House, said Friday that none of the 21 staff members required to participate in the special monitoring program has tested positive for drugs while serving in the administration. In addition, Fabiani said, all other White House aides are required to undergo random testing, and no one appointed by Clinton "has ever tested positive for drugs while in the White House."

"It's just wrong," Fabiani said of Reed's remark. "It's campaign rhetoric based on being 20 points down in the polls, not any facts."

Although the activists at the convention enthusiastically applauded the rapid-fire denunciations of Clinton, new polls have shown the president making unusual inroads into the voter groups that the coalition considers its base.

Recent surveys by The Times and other organizations have found Clinton attracting about one-third of self-described evangelical Christians, a significantly higher percentage than recent Democratic nominees have drawn. In a Times survey completed this week, Clinton narrowly led Dole among all voters who attend church at least three times a week.

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