Democrats caught in renewed ethics bind. Dukakis tries to recover from Biden `video attack'

The character issue keeps dogging the Democrats. Michael S. Dukakis - whose White House campaign had just set a fund-raising record - suddenly finds himself at the center of a furor over an ``attack video'' which undermined the campaign of Sen. Joseph R. Biden.

Governor Dukakis, considered one of the strongest Democratic candidates, could be undercut by the videotape affair, which political analyst Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution calls ``sleazy.''

Iowa pollster Alan Secrest said that because of the climate in this election, ``the damage to Dukakis may be so severe that he might be forced to drop out of the race.''

The video that helped drive Senator Biden out of the White House race was given surreptitiously to several newspapers. It was ``a very, very serious error in judgment,'' Dukakis admitted. The governor first turned down an offer by John Sasso, his campaign manager, to resign. But hours later, both Mr. Sasso and Paul Tully, another top Dukakis aide, quit the campaign.

The tape that led to the current trouble showed that Biden had copied the words and mannerisms of British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock in his closing remarks during a debate in Iowa. Biden had implied that the words were his own. That led to a series of charges against Biden involving plagiarism and inaccuracies.

Dukakis said he had no knowledge of where the videotape came from until Tuesday. Earlier, he had denied a published report that his camp was involved. But at a press conference Wednesday, he explained:

``Yesterday afternoon, at 4 p.m., I had a visit from John Sasso, who informed me he was the person responsible for providing those tapes.''

The governor telephoned Biden Wednesday morning to express his regrets.

``I want to publicly apologize to him, his family, and his friends for what happened,'' Dukakis said. ``I regret very, very much that my campaign or anyone in it contributed to that pain.''

Yet there were questions whether Dukakis has done enough to stop the criticism.

Tom Mathews, a Democratic consultant and former press officer for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York, says that under these circumstances, a campaign must act swiftly and firmly to control the damage.

``The only way to deal with it is to disapprove of the guy and fire him. That ends the story.''

Mr. Hess at Brookings calls the incident ``a slip, not a slide'' out of the race, `a la Biden and Gary Hart. But he adds:

``We have now learned enough about damage control to know that you have to do it promptly and cleanly, otherwise it just drags on.''

Hess likened Dukakis's initial reluctance to fire Sasso to President Eisenhower's hesitation to fire his closest aide, Sherman Adams, in 1958.

In Dukakis's case, there is a strong motivation to get this crisis behind him immediately.

Besides the video caper, Dukakis is also being associated in some reports with a 1982 ``sex tape'' episode. Reports in UPI and the American Political Network (APN) are comparing the current incident to the 1982 case which took place during a race for the Massachusetts governorship.

APN notes: ``A Dukakis volunteer, without the candidate's knowledge, made an incendiary mock radio tape about an opponent. In 1982, John Sasso, Dukakis's gubernatorial campaign manager, played the `sex tape' for two Boston Globe reporters `off the record.' The story was published in 1982 after another reporter heard about it and mentioned it to an adviser for Dukakis's 1982 opponent, Gov. Edward J. King.''

Dredging up old incidents like that makes a campaign team ``horror struck,'' says Mr. Mathews.

``What they considered a minor caper in years gone by, all of a sudden put into a current development, seems 20 times more heinous than it did.''

Ironically, all this comes just as Dukakis reported collecting $1 million at a fundraiser Tuesday night, and $3.3 million during the third quarter - a record for any Democratic during the summer months.

His nearest rival was US Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, at $1.2 million for the quarter.

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