In Campaigns, Integrity Counts
Clinton scandal has pushed moral conduct to top of agenda in congressional races, buoying GOP hopes of gains.
Spurred by the scandal surrounding President Clinton, character and moral conduct are emerging as central issues in this fall's campaign to a degree seldom seen in American politics.Skip to next paragraph
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Often in midterm elections, a candidate's integrity rests in the background while voters make choices on the basis of pocketbook issues, crime, or education. But this year many candidates are as likely to be asked about - or admit to - past indiscretions as their position on US troops in Bosnia.
In this rare confluence of politics and sin, the outcome of the 1998 election is suddenly becoming more difficult to predict. Republicans now anticipate significant gains in Congress, but others note the dynamics vary from race to race.
* In Illinois, Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D) is daily fighting allegations that she was unethical on financial matters.
* In California, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) is defending herself against charges she's been too soft on Mr. Clinton, her relative by marriage, in a reelection bid that has become unexpectedly tight.
* Clinton critics Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana and Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R) of Idaho have been forced to admit to inappropriate relationships. In the Chenoweth race, it has helped make it a closer contest.
"It's fairly rare that character is the major theme," says Floyd Ciruli, a pollster based in Denver. "It's typically crime or taxes or the economy. But clearly this year, character is running big."
As in post-Watergate days - and without looming economic depression or war to shift the focus - it's perhaps not surprising that integrity is important. But its sudden rise has surprised many analysts. In fact, a recent poll shows "moral and religious issues" now rank with "crime and drugs" as the top voter concerns.
To be sure, Republicans have been tempted to use the Clinton scandal to portray all Democrats as morally sullied.
But the only cases in which such character attacks really work is "if there's something specific the candidate has done," says Bruce Cain, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. And then, he says, "it can stick," because "in that it's a salient issue nationally, it becomes a salient issue locally."
Take Senator Moseley-Braun. Swept into office in 1992 - the "year of the woman" - she now trails her conservative challenger, state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R) in a race with big national import. As Republicans aim for a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate, they would delight in seeing the high-profile Moseley-Braun ousted.
With little exception, the main focus of the race so far has been the senator's ethics.
Questions are raised about her secret meetings, most recently in 1996, with a Nigerian dictator, the late Gen. Sani Abacha. She has also been accused of financial missteps, including in raising campaign funds. She counters that authorities never pursued the campaign allegations.