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In Campaigns, Integrity Counts

Clinton scandal has pushed moral conduct to top of agenda in congressional races, buoying GOP hopes of gains.

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A recent rhetorical dust-up with conservative columnist George Will perhaps showed the senator's frustration over it all. After Mr. Will criticized her integrity, the African-American senator hinted it was because of race, saying on Sept. 7 that Will could "just take his hood and go back to wherever he came from."

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She apologized for the remark and has since tried to shift focus to the issues. "Elections should not be about politicians, they should be about the people's business," she said in a newspaper forum.

California's Senator Boxer, meanwhile, is emblematic of Republican efforts to portray all Democrats as tainted by the Clinton scandal. Boxer, also elected in 1992, was a harsh critic of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his tough nomination fight, which involved sexual-harassment allegations.

But she wasn't quick to criticize Clinton on the same grounds, a discrepancy highlighted by her opponent, state Treasurer Matt Fong (R). She has recently ratcheted up her criticism of the president.

But sometimes the character-attack strategy can be dangerous. Two Republicans who've been among Clinton's harshest critics on moral grounds have now come under scrutiny.

Last week, Idaho's Representative Chenoweth admitted to a long-term relationship with a married man when she was single. And Indiana's Representative Burton recently disclosed that he had an illegitimate son, the result of a long-ago extramarital relationship.

Both affairs, however, occurred before the two took office - a fact they use to differentiate themselves from Clinton.

But the lesson is that "if this is the year of character, it may also be the year of glass houses," says Del Ali of Maryland-based Mason-Dixon Research. "If you're going to toss a rock at someone, this year you better live in a solid brick house - you better have been faithful to your spouse," he says.

But for all the attention to character by candidates, the question is whether voters care. One poll released last week is early evidence they do.

In the past nine months, "moral and religious issues" have become paramount for voters, according to Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and her Republican colleague, Ed Goeas. They found that among senior citizens, integrity has even surpassed concern about Social Security.

They and other observers expect many Democratic voters - including large numbers of women - won't vote in midterm elections this fall, while energized Republicans will. It could mean losses for Democrats.

Indeed, many women may express their feelings of "revulsion" over Clinton's behavior in a "typically female, nonconfrontational way," says Linda Hirshman, a feminist scholar at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "They're just not going to walk down the street and vote."

As for the long-term impact of this year's election, it's an opportunity for voters to start considering character as well as competence, says Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, Tenn. At the moment, he says, "the public is relieved if a candidate has either one. But maybe if we expected more, they'd try to be both."