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CAMPAIGN 2000

Clinton's Sins Lurk Between Cheney's Lines

August 30, 2000|MICHAEL FINNEGAN and MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Dick Cheney, the Republican vice presidential nominee, was on familiar ground Tuesday when he called character "the very essence of our great country."

In the five weeks since George W. Bush named him as his running mate, Cheney has sounded the character theme in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, California and nearly every other place he has campaigned.

Looming like a ghost at every stop has been the memory of Monica S. Lewinsky. He never utters her name. Cheney rarely, for that matter, mentions President Clinton by name.

But when he urges high school students to value "self-restraint" and behave responsibly "when nobody's looking," Cheney's allusions to the president's affair with the former White House intern are clear.

"It's sort of like not mentioning the rope in the house of a hanged man," said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "It's a real test of the ingenuity of the campaign to evoke the memory of the Lewinsky scandal without appearing to do so."

Cheney's roundabout method of drawing on Clinton's impeachment to tarnish Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, highlights a common technique of the modern campaign: attacking a rival without appearing to attack a rival.

Typical of Cheney's approach was his speech Tuesday at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes here, where he said the election was about choosing a president who, among other things, will set "an example for our children."

His brief remarks came after a procession of athletes paid tribute to the role of Jesus Christ in their lives. Erika Garris, a 16-year-old track star, told how the Gospels have guided her life.

"I made a pledge to stay drug-free and not have sex until I was married," she said.

Cheney picked up on the marriage theme, calling attention--for the fifth time in a week--to the 36th wedding anniversary that he and his wife, Lynne, celebrated Tuesday.

Last week, the Bush campaign roped students on summer break into otherwise vacant high schools to enable Cheney to host forums on character in schools and the military.

At the first one, he told ROTC cadets in Bakersfield that character, honesty and integrity are essential to the military. At the second one, he told students in Oregon that such values would teach them self-restraint--to be "more in control of themselves."

To those who hear Cheney extol the virtues of character, his subtext is not so subtle.

Cheney's point is clearly "the president's morality problems--specifically with Miss Lewinsky," said Allen Palmeri, who edits a magazine for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Karyn Lynch, the principal of Crater High School in Medford, Ore., where Cheney spoke Thursday, burst into laughter when asked whether he might have reminded listeners of Lewinsky.

"Certainly I would say we have people who are in the know and who have kept up," she said.

In a brief meeting with reporters Tuesday, Cheney was asked whether he intends to invoke the Lewinsky scandal.

"We have not talked about the scandal and don't plan to," he said. "But I do think the question of integrity and honor in the Oval Office is an important one."

The Bush campaign has been sensitive to the risks inherent in any overt effort to exploit the scandal. At the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Bush's only encounter with Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who led the House prosecution during Clinton's impeachment, was a handshake over a rope line.

So to avoid specific references to Lewinsky, the campaign has relied on what political analysts characterize as code words and phrases.

"It's a whole style of campaigning where they say they're not negative--but they're very negative," said pollster Dick Bennett, president of the American Research Group in Manchester, N.H.

The campaign acknowledges that Cheney's events are designed partly to echo Bush's pledge to "restore honor and dignity to the White House," a phrase that Cheney himself often uses on the stump. But the campaign denies it's a line of attack.

"It is a positive agenda for the future, not a reaction to the past," said Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan.

Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway said Cheney's emphasis on character shows that "Bush is clearly trying to run against Clinton rather than focusing on the future."

"Bush has clearly talked out of both sides of his mouth about being negative in the campaign," he said.

But Cheney allies see his remarks on character as a good fit for a former Defense secretary who presided over the Persian Gulf War after 12 years as a conservative congressman from Wyoming.

Being an upright character--whether in school, the military or other walks of life--is "very important to Dick in his own life," said Eddie Mahe, a Republican campaign consultant.

The indirect attack is a tool long used by American politicians trying to make a deep impression with potentially inflammatory messages. In 1972, when Richard Nixon and his running mate, Spiro T. Agnew, cast themselves as "law and order" candidates, voters understood the implied pledge to bring riots and antiwar protests under control.

In 1976, when Jimmy Carter promised he would never lie to the American people, he didn't have to mention Nixon's disgrace in the Watergate scandal to score points over his rival, Gerald R. Ford.

So Cheney's ongoing remarks, analysts said, are part of that tradition, as when he told a Future Farmers of America group in Oregon that "there's nothing more essential in the educational field than the teaching of character."

"He doesn't put in the equal sign," said Stephen Hess, a scholar on the presidency at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. "But it's not so subtle that any Future Farmer of America wouldn't catch on pretty quickly."

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