In Image Tally, Clinton's Score Is on the Rise

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the media-obsessed world of campaigning, the "visual" is the thing. And on that score, the week would probably go to President Clinton.

On the day that Mr. Clinton positioned himself in front of one of the nation's most breathtaking views - the Grand Canyon - to designate the red rock canyons of Utah as a national monument, Bob Dole was taking a tumble in Chico, Calif. A railing gave way on Senator Dole's platform as he leaned over to shake hands with a boy. He bounced to his feet, uninjured, and gave his speech.

Elsewhere in California, that same day, while Dole was chiding the entertainment industry for its dubious moral messages, Clinton was welcoming Hollywood star power, with actor-environmentalist Robert Redford attending the president's Grand Canyon appearance.

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But the most meaningful image of the week came from the heart of the country, Cincinnati, Ohio, where Clinton appeared before a tableau of blue uniforms to receive the endorsement of the nation's largest police union - a group that has never before endorsed a Democrat for president.

GOP spinmasters noted that Fraternal Order of Police officials backed the president as much for his support of unions as for his crime initiatives, and they also noted that many rank and file police will still vote for Dole. In general, labor union leadership solidly backs the Democratic Party, while members increasingly vote Republican.

But Dole could hardly buy a clear shot at the president this week. In a sign that his economic message, centered on a proposed 15 percent across-the-board federal tax cut, was not making a serious dent in Clinton's lead in polls, Dole changed gears and made crime and drugs his major focus. But not only did Clinton win the police endorsement, he could also highlight new statistics showing a 9 percent decrease in violent crime last year and a 3 percent decline in arrest rates for juveniles committing violent crimes, the first such decrease in seven years.

Thus began the latest round in the campaign's message wars: For Dole, the strategy is to join the crime and drug issues at the hip, and hope that the unabashedly negative statistics on teen-age drug use - a doubling in usage from 1992 to 1995 - will mute Clinton's crime message.

In an appearance at Villanova University near Philadelphia, Dole unveiled his plan to combat drugs and crime. Some measures have already been part of his litany: a strengthened drug czar's office, using the armed forces to guard United States borders from illegal drug infiltration, and "making certain that prosecutors once again bring the full sanction of law against drug criminals."

Dole also promised to work with the governors to end "the revolving door justice system by taking such measures as abolishing parole for violent criminals." He pledged to double federal funding for state prison construction. And he promised to make juvenile criminals who commit "an adult crime" serve adult time.

Just don't do it

In addition, Dole unveiled a new anti-drug slogan, "Just don't do it," a blended version of Nike's "Just do it" ad campaign and Nancy Reagan's "Just say no" anti-drug message.

In Cincinnati, Clinton also linked drugs and crime - hoping that his victories on the crime issue will outweigh his vulnerabilities on drugs. He moved through his own standard litany of crime-fighting strategies, including his measure to put 100,000 new police officers on the streets. He strongly implied that all 100,000 are already hired and in place, while in fact less than half are.

Clinton highlighted the direct link between drugs and crime: "I believe it is very important that we get more states to test prisoners and parolees for drug use and to provide more drug treatment in prisons, and to revoke parole if people violate it by using drugs."

The president also played up his position on guns - his success in passing the Brady law requiring background checks for gun-buyers and in banning 19 varieties of assault weapons. Aware of the popularity of those measures, Dole decided not to push for repeal when he was still a member of the Senate. His reward: The National Rifle Association decided not to endorse him.

Dole did gain a modest victory this week with the Commission on Presidential Debates' recommendation to exclude Reform Party candidate Ross Perot from the debates. Dole believes Mr. Perot drains support from his white-male-dominated voter base, and wanted to go against Clinton, mano-a-mano. Clinton, assuming Perot will go after Dole's economic message, wanted the Texan in.

Debating Perot's exclusion

But ultimately, the debate on debates is probably more important on the question of criteria for inclusion, and not which candidate would be helped. Experts note that presidential debates tend to reinforce voters' notions of the candidates, not change them. As Perot threatens court action on his exclusion, interested citizens are asking what, ultimately, serves the public good and is fair to all candidates running on third-party, independent tickets.

One final note, courtesy of the daily Hotline newsletter: The last time a Republican presidential challenger lost, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964, the young woman crowned as Miss America was Vonda Kay Van from Arizona.

This year's winner, Tara Dawn Holland, is from ... Kansas.

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