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Dole Team Turns Up Its Attacks on First Lady

Politics: GOP nominee is trying to use Hillary Clinton to portray her husband as a liberal. Analysts see it as a strategy that carries risks.

September 28, 1996|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAL HARBOUR, Fla. — As Bob Dole sharpens his attacks on President Clinton's record in these final weeks of the campaign, the GOP presidential nominee increasingly is drawing a bead on a fresh target: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Opening a new front in his bid to galvanize his campaign, Dole in recent days has begun mentioning her by name while denouncing the president's failed attempt to restructure the health care system, an effort led by the first lady.

The point is to emphasize Dole's current chief theme--that the president is not the poll-driven compromiser that people think, but is really a committed liberal who will launch a big-government "power grab" if reelected.

"President Clinton came to town a liberal. He's still a liberal. And the only thing that will stop him in his tracks is a Republican Congress," Dole argues on the campaign trail.

Hillary Clinton's potential role is becoming a chief exhibit in Dole's indictment. "I'll talk about it in the debates," he vowed during a recent rally near Chicago, the first lady's hometown. " . . . Now he says he's going to put Mrs. Clinton in charge of welfare reform!"

Because the first lady is widely perceived to be more liberal than her husband, Dole aides hope that focusing on her will help raise doubts in the minds of voters about the president's claims to moderation. They also hope to remind voters of the various allegations of improper conduct that have been made against her in connection with the Whitewater affair.

As a result, Dole's comments about her have become far more pointed recently than his convention week jibe at her book, "It Takes a Village."

But analysts say the focus on a first lady by a presidential opponent can be a two-edged sword--especially for a man already suffering from a large gender gap in the polls, with women overwhelmingly preferring Clinton to Dole.

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"There are definitely risks--namely the potential backlash from women, particularly younger women who feel protective of Hillary," said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center in Washington.

"Women, especially younger women, have a better opinion of Hillary than men have," he said.

Ann Lewis, a senior Clinton-Gore campaign official, characterized Dole's attacks on Hillary Clinton as the sign of "a losing candidate whose anger comes out in unexpected ways."

He added, "I don't remember Tom Dewey attacking Eleanor Roosevelt."

The Dole camp, of course, has a different take on the issue.

"As a campaign, we've made a determination that the best way to make the case against Bill Clinton on character is not a frontal assault on Whitewater, cattle futures and any personal issues--but instead to go after the president's record of broken promises, raised taxes and a dramatic expansion in size and scope of government," said John Buckley, Dole's communications director.

"And Exhibit A is the president's 1993 attempt to nationalize health care," he said. "And it's impossible to raise that issue without mentioning people like Ira Magaziner and Hillary Clinton." Magaziner was staff director of the president's health care reform task force, headed by the first lady.

Buckley added that when the president said in a recent interview with ABC-TV's Barbara Walters that he might ask his wife to oversee the implementation of welfare reform in a second term, "alarm bells went off throughout the Republican Party," including at Dole's campaign headquarters.

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Dole appears to be unconcerned about any potential backlash that his assault on the first lady might engender.

"Those who are strong supporters of her ideological agenda tend to be liberal and aren't going to vote for a Republican under any circumstances," Buckley said. "The issue of what she would do in a second term when it comes to welfare reform is a completely legitimate issue."

White House aides are clearly prepared for the issue. Asked about Dole's statements, the president's senior advisor, George Stephanopoulos, quickly noted that this was not the first time that Dole had criticized a first lady.

"Dole has a history of this," he said.

Democratic officials have been quick to provide backup documentation, referring to an amendment that then-Rep. Dole offered in the House on the night of Oct. 7, 1965, to a highway beautification bill--Lady Bird Johnson's pet project. The Dole amendment would have designated her as the secretary of commerce, apparently in a mocking gesture aimed at her high profile on the subject. (The amendment was defeated on a voice vote.)

In any case, Democratic officials insist they are unconcerned by Dole's latest attacks.

Asked about Dole's new gambit, Vice President Al Gore first affected an angry countenance, quickly making like he was going to rip off his jacket, ready for fisticuffs.

Settling back with a smile, he then offered a more measured response, reciting a litany of statistics showing that crime and the federal budget deficit are down while the economy is picking up.

"The American people are judging the president by his performance, by the results that he is producing," Gore said. "[Dole] can't talk about any of those issues with credibility."

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