An Effort To Widen Clinton's Shadow

A North Carolina Republican candidate is first to try strategy of guilt by association.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At Benson's Main Street Caf in a rural part of North Carolina, people are talking about the political promise and pitfalls the Lewinsky scandal offers Republicans.

The topic over lunch is Dan Page, the Republican challenger in their congressional district.

In the first political ad of its kind, the young, upstart state senator has attempted to tie his Democratic opponent, Rep. Bob Etheridge, directly to President Clinton's troubles.

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It's the most blatant attempt to capitalize on the president's problems in the nation. It was also admittedly a risky decision, with the president's job approval ratings still topping 60 percent and public fatigue with the scandal at an all-time high.

But the ad, which implies both the president and the congressman have questionable values, has brought the little known challenger national attention. And Democrats and Republicans are now watching the race carefully as they grapple with how best to deal with the scandal.

Although a recent poll found there's been no change since the spring in the number of Democrats who say they'll vote in the fall, party leaders are still afraid the unpleasant revelations could depress Democratic turnout. That could cost them seats in the House. Earlier this summer, many were hoping to pick up enough support to regain control.

On the Republican side, most assume Mr. Clinton has damaged himself enough without their help. While the national party has launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign focusing on honesty, it doesn't mention Clinton. The strategy is to try to drive a wedge between the president and his party.

"The more elected Democrats have to go on record saying that his behavior is unacceptable,... it neutralizes Clinton," says Republican pollster Bill McInturff. Presidents are traditionally great assets for raising money and getting out the vote.

So far, Mr. Page is the only Republican who's tried to directly tie his opponent to the president's problems.

The controversial ad opens saying: "Scandal after scandal and who stands with Bill Clinton, even now? Liberal Bobby Etheridge.... Applauding Clinton's values, not ours."

The ad shows Clinton standing next to Representative Etheridge, a tall, lanky North Carolinian who looks remarkably like Jimmy Stewart. There's also a series of searing headlines about the scandal.

Pundits have criticized the Page campaign for cropping out of the picture four North Carolina law-enforcement officers. The photo was taken when a bill Etheridge cosponsored to provide bulletproof vests to local police became law. Some of the headlines in the ad were not from news stories, but letters to the editors.

It didn't play well at the Benson cafe, even among Republicans. Electrician Leslie Hardison is an avid Page supporter who's furious at what the scandal has done to the country. But he just shrugged and shook his head when asked about the ad.

Stacy Flannery, an Etheridge supporter from nearby Angier, didn't like it at all. "I thought it was cynical and misleading in its message," she says. Her husband, a Page supporter, declined to comment.

"It was an attempt at political guilt by association," says Ferrel Guillory of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Etheridge's roots are somewhat deeper than that."

Raised on a tobacco farm, Etheridge is known as a conservative Democrat who's fought the Clinton administration on tobacco issues. A former state superintendent of schools, he's made improving education a top priority in his campaign.

"I don't think people are going to respond to such negative ads anymore," he says. "I think politics should be about helping people raise their hopes and visions and dreams, not tearing them down."

But Page is standing by his ad, insisting Etheridge should have done more to persuade the president to come clean with the truth about Monica Lewinsky long before his address to the nation two weeks ago.

"We took a stand based on principle, not on the polls, because it was the right thing to do," says Page. "We've had a very positive response."

But many Republican pundits think such tactics are potentially unproductive. "The Democrats have one pathetic defense left, that this is a partisan attack," says McInturff.

WHILE other Republicans are starting to raise Clinton's problems, they're doing so more subtly. In California, Republican challenger Matt Fong is accusing Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of having a double standard for criticizing Justice Clarence Thomas after he was accused of sexual harassment, but then being fairly circumspect after the Lewinsky allegations were raised against the president.

In Alabama, Republican challenger Gil Aust has called for Clinton's resignation and challenged his opponent, Rep. Robert "Bud" Cramer (D) of Alabama, to do the same. GOP candidates in Tennessee, Texas, New Jersey, and a handful of other states have also called on Clinton to resign.

But Hastings Wyman, publisher of the Southern Political Report in Washington, points out that a number of politicians have survived highly publicized sex scandals, including former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards and Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb, to name just two.

"People have just gotten in the habit of overlooking this stuff; now whether it's good or bad depends on your values," says Mr. Wyman. He also points out that polls in the South continue to be very kind to Clinton, at least in his job-performance ratings.

"And that's just in the Southern Bible belt," Wyman notes. "[Who] knows what the Yankees are doing."

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