When marital woes spill onto campaign stage
It is a politician's dread: a private life laid out in tabloid fashion. Perhaps a marriage dissected, an extramarital relationship exposed, the D-word - divorce - bandied about.Skip to next paragraph
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Suddenly, like a National Enquirer delivery truck gone wild, all this has hit New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani - and cast doubts on whether he will stay in the Senate race against Hillary Rodham Clinton. The public news that Mr. Giuliani will seek a separation from his wife of 16 years raises a broader question: How much does morality and divorce matter to the electorate?
"Shockingly, little," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Most Americans have become either so jaded or so tolerant when it comes to the private lives of public officials that infidelity alone may no longer be enough to turn voters away from a candidate. "I don't think it means we don't care," says former Democratic Rep. Pat Schroeder. "It means we're a little more realistic about the fact that we're electing human beings and not angels. I think people have been able to identify with what their lives would look like under that kind of limelight."
In modern times, that tawdry limelight has hit its share of politicians, including President Clinton, former Speaker of the House Robert Livingston, and former presidential candidate Gary Hart, among others. But even today it is rare for a candidate to announce he is separating from his spouse in the middle of a campaign.
The public's reaction varies from region to region. In the South, a candidate who cheats on his wife is less likely to survive than a candidate in another part of the country. It's the kind of split in public opinion that was seen during Mr. Clinton's trials over the Lewinsky matter - when he enjoyed high approval ratings in the midst of being impeached.
"We know because of Lewinsky that two-thirds of the country is willing to give a long leash to political leaders," says Todd Gitlin, a cultural analyst at New York University. "But the one-third that doesn't feel that way is concentrated in the Republican Party, and that poses problems for Republican candidates."
He says this could be a kind of bellwether test for the Republican Party. "Let's suppose Giuliani fails. What's the lesson?" he asks. "The lesson is that to be a Republican, you've got to be clean. If he gets away with it, however, if he gets the nomination and wins, then that is the nail in the coffin for the moralists ... on these questions."
GOP political consultants don't think Giuliani's separation will kill his candidacy. "It's been in the air for some time about Rudy - I think it's already been discounted in the polls," says Joseph Mercurio, who often consults for Republicans in the state.
He points out that other New York Republicans, such as Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and former Sen. Alphonse D'Amato, have had marital problems and been reelected. But Rockefeller's very public divorce probably kept him from becoming the Republican presidential candidate. On Wednesday night, following Giuliani's surprise statement, GOP leaders maintained it was a personal issue for Giuliani, not something the voters cared about.