To this point two words might describe the tone of the 1996 presidential campaign: "kinder" and "gentler." But with barely three weeks left before voters go to the polls, the question now is whether the relative civility will last.
That's because there were hints this week that the Dole campaign is considering sharpening its words. Bob Dole himself said he plans to hit President Clinton harder on "character." His ad team launched a radio spot that claims "America suffers from a moral crisis ... in the White House."
If face-to-face encounters are any indication, though, the '96 race may remain notable for its lack of mud. Wednesday's vice-presidential debate was both courteous and substantive. At times, facts and figures swirled around the Florida stage like airplanes stacked up over O'Hare.
Both GOP vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp and incumbent Vice President Al Gore referred to each other with respect and called each other friend - as their two standardbearers did at their own debate last Sunday in Hartford, Conn.
In the end, this week's events may have showcased the simple issue-driven themes that the two campaigns want to leave in voters' minds as November and election day get closer.
The Dole team's mantra is, "Our tax cut will make your whole life better." It's an idea that Mr. Kemp in particular pushes relentlessly.
On the other hand, the slogan of Messrs. Clinton and Gore might be, "Life is good. Why risk a change now?"
Polls are one major reason the '96 campaign may change from relative restraint to no-issues barred. Dole continues to lag 10 to 15 points behind in most major surveys - though a few rough tracking polls have showed only a single-digit gap in recent days.
Some GOP advisers are growing increasingly insistent that, for Dole, the high road is a route to second place. They want more emphasis on ethics-related issues such as "Filegate" - allegations that the Clinton security office deliberately collected FBI files on prominent Republicans - and special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's continuing Whitewater investigation.
Indeed, Dole did take some jabs at Clinton this week. The sharpest seemed almost inadvertent: On Tuesday, while campaigning in New Jersey, the GOP nominee echoed a supporter's suggestion that it's time to get "Bozo" out of the White House.
Dole not 'running for gossip columnist'
Dole indicated in a number of appearances that he may be tougher in next week's final presidential debate, in San Diego, than he was last Sunday. But at times a natural reticence surfaced despite Dole's best efforts. In Illinois on Wednesday the ex-Senate majority leader groused that if he starts raising Whitewater, "I'm sort of like running for gossip columnist or something." Dole campaign aides continue to worry that undertaking harsh personal attacks may make their man appear mean.
Usually, it's the job of the vice-presidential candidate to slug it out with the opposing side, while the ticket leader stays out of the fray. But if anything, Kemp seems even more unsuited to such an attack role than his running mate. On Wednesday he and Gore engaged in a debate that many observers judged worthy of the name, due to its clash of ideas.
Take taxes - Kemp's favorite subject. Kemp pushed the GOP's proposed 15 percent tax reduction as a nostrum for all kinds of problems, from poverty to education to national incivility. Gore responded with a critique of its effect on the deficit, and promoted the more targeted Clinton-Gore tax-cut proposal. This led to a discussion about whether targeted tax cuts - as opposed to the across-the-board version - are Washington manipulation, "social engineering" in Kemp's words. It was a disagreement that wouldn't have been out of place at a think-tank seminar.
Braving a discussing of abortion
Hot-button issues such as abortion, notably absent from Sunday's Dole-Clinton discussion, did surface on the Florida stage. Kemp spoke in conciliatory tones, saying "there is no consensus" in the country on the subject. But he did charge that Clinton shouldn't have vetoed a bill banning a controversial late-term abortion method he called "gruesome."
Gore, meanwhile, deftly exploited the fact that Kemp has had to take a tougher line on affirmative action now that he's Dole's partner. Dole supports a California initiative that would end state affirmative-action programs - an initiative that Kemp has opposed in the past. "I do not believe Abraham Lincoln would have adopted Bob Dole's position to end all affirmative action," said Gore.
Kemp responded that he believes in equality of opportunity - not necessarily equality of result.
Attention now shifts to next week's presidential candidate face-off. It may be Dole's last chance to gain traction for his still-spinning wheels.
The San Diego event isn't the only national political debate remaining on this fall's calender, however. The battle of the pets is still to come. Talk-show host John McLaughlin says he plans to moderate a debate on Oct. 17 about which would be the best first pet: cat or dog? Representatives of the publications Dog World and Cat Magazine will argue, in absentia, for Dole's dog, Leader, and the incumbent feline, Socks.