DURING the last presidential debate, Gov. Michael Dukakis was asked about his opponent's record on government ethics. ``Wasn't this the Mr. Bush who supported Mr. Meese?'' the governor responded. ``Called James Watt an excellent secretary of the interior? ... Supported the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court?''
Mr. Dukakis's examples illustrate how the ``sleaze factor,'' an issue many political experts considered a windfall for the Democratic nominee, has slipped through his fingers. Neither James Watt nor Robert Bork had an ethical cloud hanging over him. And as for Edwin Meese III, who was investigated for improprieties by a special prosecutor, it was an open secret that Mr. Bush had reservations about the former attorney general.
On ethical, legal, and judicial issues, the vice-president appears to have a good record or, at worst, no record at all.
The ``sleaze factor.'' There is no verifiable account that pins George Bush to ethically questionable people or practices. The people Bush is known to have championed - former White House chief of staff and Treasury Secretary James Baker III, current Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh - are clean.
Oliver North, a central figure in the Iran-contra affair, and Panama's Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega are about as close as anyone comes. But the vice-president insists he did not know of their alleged wrongdoing when he associated with them.
With this relatively clean slate, Bush is pushing a number of ethics proposals.
His centerpiece is a new White House Ethics Office to monitor executive-branch employees. Even aides, however, are hard pressed to articulate the distinction between the new office and the current Office on Government Ethics.
Bush would also boost resources for each agency's ethics office, and create stricter codes for executive-branch officials. For example, in an apparent rebuff to Reagan administration officials such as Mr. Meese, he would require administration officials to have blind trusts managed by institutions rather than individuals.
Bush also wants to subject members of Congress to probes by an independent counsel. On this issue he stands with Dukakis and against Mr. Thornburgh, who says special prosecutors for Congress are unnecessary.
Crime. Aside from his heading up the administration's drug policy - with mixed results, depending on whom you ask - there is little history to either back up or deflate Bush's get-tough rhetoric.
In contrast with Dukakis, Bush supports the death penalty for murder, espionage, treason, some drug-related offenses, and other ``heinous'' crimes. He supports the sentencing guidelines being challenged in the Supreme Court, and particularly wants tougher mandatory sentences for gang activity.
Bush would convert unneeded military bases into prisons, and double the budget for prison construction, ``even if it means cutting elsewhere.''
Like Dukakis - and contrary to his rhetoric - Bush supports prison-furlough programs, though not for those who have life sentences without parole.
The courts. Bush has said he would not use an ideological ``litmus test'' in choosing Supreme Court justices or pushing for federal judges.
But he has said he favors judges who ``won't legislate from the bench,'' that is, conservative judges who exercise judicial restraint. Dukakis aides say Bush's past hints at future appointments: Bush supported Mr. Bork, and he broke a tie in the Senate to elevate Daniel Manion, a controversial and conservative nominee, to the federal bench.
Others, however, aren't sure that Bush would target conservatives as vigorously as Mr. Reagan. ``Given that Bush isn't a lawyer, he would probably lean heavily on his attorney general'' to make judicial appointments, says legal scholar Robert Katzman at the Brookings Institution.