SAN DIEGO — Are the phrases "ethical behavior" and "Clinton administration" mutually exclusive?
The Dole campaign would certainly like voters to think so. Maybe their man didn't engage in a concerted personal attack on President Clinton during the final presidential debate Wednesday night - but he still spent a lot of time hammering at alleged White House lapses. With the race for the White House now entering its final sprint, ethics might be Bob Dole's last, best hope for a defining issue.
The Clinton team might well be vulnerable for some of its actions. But overall, judge outside experts, some of Mr. Dole's charges contain an element of exaggeration and there's little evidence that questioning Mr. Clinton's ethics is changing votes. A majority of voters have told pollsters that Clinton's ethics problems - from the long-simmering Whitewater deal to the more recent flap over improper acquisition of FBI files - are not going to dissuade them from reelecting him.
It's not that Americans don't care. It's that they've decided other things are more important, such as a strong economy. It also helps that, for many Americans, Clinton comes across as a likable fellow.
"If you're personable, you can get away with a lot more," says Henry Kenski, a political scientist at the University of Arizona and a Republican consultant. "Just imagine if Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson had wound up with 900 FBI files."
But what exactly has Clinton gotten away with? To listen to Dole, who earlier this week launched his most concerted attacks to date on the Clinton White House's ethics, one might think the entire administration is about to be led off in handcuffs.
Clinton scandal scorecard
Dole cites 32 administration officials under investigation and four independent counsels at work looking at various figures, including the president, his wife, and three cabinet appointees. But so far, no indictments have been issued, at least at the highest levels. In the case of the improper acquisition of FBI files, there has been no evidence that the files were used for political purposes.
Still, as the clock winds down on the campaign, Dole has plenty to go on if he decides to hammer away on ethics. Besides Filegate, there was the improper use of the Justice Department in the investigation of the White House Travel Office, which resulted in the firing, indictment, and trial of its chief, Billy Dale, who was later found innocent of financial wrongs.
There's Webster Hubbell, a former Justice Department lawyer, jailed in Arkansas for defrauding clients at his old law firm. There's also the question of possible presidential pardons over Whitewater, as felon Susan McDougal sits in jail refusing to talk about Clinton's role in the matter. (Dole's purity on pardons, though, is also now under question, since former special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh revealed that Dole urged pardons for participants in the Iran-contra scandal in the 1980s.)
In the history of ethically challenged White Houses, "the Clinton administration ranks toward the top, at least in terms of allegations," says American University historian Allan Lichtman. "What's unusual is that they've been around for a long time without getting cleared up. There are a lot of allegations with little proof."
Americans also have a recent history of separating their feelings about a president from ethics problems in his White House. The Reagan administration labored under a series of troubles, not least Iran-contra, but President Reagan remains a beloved figure. In the reverse scenario, the Bush White House was not clouded by scandal, yet President Bush was voted out of office.
Dole partisans remain hopeful that voters will realize by Nov. 5 that they don't want four more years of Clinton messes. Republican eminence George Shultz, looking ill at ease among the lesser lights in "spin alley" after the University of San Diego debate, focused just on the FBI-files flap when asked about Clinton ethics.
"I can't imagine how anybody could take all these FBI files on your opposition, people that can't even be remotely justified on the basis of White House clearances, and have them lying around," said the former secretary of state. "It's unprecedented. It's a gigantic abuse of power."
Indeed, Mr. Luntz, the GOP pollster, says Filegate is the scandal that bothers voters the most because it raises the specter of Big Brother. Rep. Tillie Fowler (R) of Florida says she hears more from her constituents about the FBI files than any other White House issue.
But at Shiley Theater, at the University of San Diego, the citizens who posed the debate questions Wednesday night for the most part didn't raise ethics matters. They wanted to talk about issues that affect their families, giving Dole few openings to go after Clinton in a forceful and direct way.
Still, White House chief of staff Leon Panetta was surprised that Dole wasn't a lot tougher on Clinton. "We anticipated, frankly, that it would appear in his opening statement," says Mr. Panetta. "I think what it shows is Senator Dole's heart is not in this kind of negative attack."
Republican spinmeisters opined that Dole weaved it into the debate just right, not too heavy-handed, not mean. "You don't want to hit people over the head," said GOP pollster Frank Luntz. "The key to raising an ethics challenge is to raise the issue itself and then let the public decide."
Luntz is one of legions of political insiders who jammed the media center after the debate, peddling their assessments. As political theater, spin alley was far more entertaining than the debate. Respected officials who normally work in plush offices stood cheek-by-jowl with reporters in a sweaty crush. Beside each official stood a minion carrying a sign identifying the political purveyor below. Spinners and spinees alike knew this was basically a game - Democratic spinners handed out children's tops sporting Clinton-Gore logos.