The Feminine Factor Affecting Tomorrow's Debate

Immediately after reading one of my recent columns, several women quickly let me know why they still were going to vote for President Clinton despite their acknowledgment that he had a reputation as a philanderer.

I had written of the irony that women who branded womanizing a dehumanizing act were going to give Mr. Clinton their vote. The response was to this effect: that while they all deplored the extramarital acts and saw them as character flaws, they simply had to vote for Clinton because of his "fine" public record and, mainly, because they couldn't stand Bob Dole.

With some women it's Mr. Dole's pro-life stand that they find distasteful. Some criticize what they see as Dole's knee-jerk relationship with the Christian right. But many just don't relate to him personally. Some find him dark and dour and even forbidding. Anyway, for one reason or another, the women voters are in overwhelming numbers lining up behind the president. Their support accounts for Clinton's big lead in the polls. Dole is hanging on to the male vote, though barely.

Perhaps the smiling, joshing Bob Dole that we saw in the first debate may soften female views of the Kansan. But if so, it hasn't been showing up yet in a significant lessening of women's support for Clinton.

To me, it is very odd that the new tolerance for what could be called breaches of personal morality is coming more from women than from men. Up until recent years it was the women - our wives, our mothers, and our sisters - who were the first to raise their voices when men stepped out of bounds in their sexual lives. It was they who upheld these standards.

Did you notice how Dole at the debate ducked his big opportunity to talk about Clinton and his character? "I don't like to get into personal matters," he said. Obviously Dole had decided there was little to be gained by mining that issue. He did later slip in a question about Clinton's policy on pardons (for those convicted in Whitewater-related cases). But when Clinton drew laughs with his "No comment" answer - that was the end of that.

As I watched Clinton on the debate stage I admired his impeccable performance. He was letter-perfect, sincere, and unflappable. As good as Dole was (and he was very good), it was not enough to knock Clinton out of his lead. But as I watched I thought of the perceptive analysis of Clinton provided by Martin Walker, the US bureau chief of Britain's Guardian, in his new, highly praised book, "The President We Deserve."

Writes Mr. Walker: "Single-minded in political ambition, he [Clinton] was thoroughly undisciplined in much of his personal life.... He was in his flaws and sensual weaknesses, his readiness to put off hard decisions until he was almost too late, his fondness for spending, and his casual approach to debt, utterly typical of the America of his day. He was, in that sense, the president America deserved."

There is no doubt in my mind that the growing view among Americans - and perhaps it has become prevailing - is that a president or presidential candidate should be judged by what he does in his public and not his private life. If that is true, America is getting not only the president it deserves but also the kind of American most Americans want in that position.

In the aftermath of the debate, Dole has obviously been advised to take off the gloves and challenge Clinton's ethics. Indeed, he began on the stump to sharply criticize the president as someone whose "word is no good" and who has been "playing around" while the drug war raged out of control. So Dole may well bang away at Clinton on a range of character issues - even hinting at Clinton's past history of infidelity - at the second debate tomorrow night. But there appears to be little expectation that raising these issues will turn the election in Dole's favor.

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