In Campaigns, Integrity Counts

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

Spurred by the scandal surrounding President Clinton, character and moral conduct are emerging as central issues in this fall's campaign to a degree seldom seen in American politics.

Often in midterm elections, a candidate's integrity rests in the background while voters make choices on the basis of pocketbook issues, crime, or education. But this year many candidates are as likely to be asked about - or admit to - past indiscretions as their position on US troops in Bosnia.

In this rare confluence of politics and sin, the outcome of the 1998 election is suddenly becoming more difficult to predict. Republicans now anticipate significant gains in Congress, but others note the dynamics vary from race to race.

* In Illinois, Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D) is daily fighting allegations that she was unethical on financial matters.

* In California, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) is defending herself against charges she's been too soft on Mr. Clinton, her relative by marriage, in a reelection bid that has become unexpectedly tight.

* Clinton critics Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana and Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R) of Idaho have been forced to admit to inappropriate relationships. In the Chenoweth race, it has helped make it a closer contest.

"It's fairly rare that character is the major theme," says Floyd Ciruli, a pollster based in Denver. "It's typically crime or taxes or the economy. But clearly this year, character is running big."

As in post-Watergate days - and without looming economic depression or war to shift the focus - it's perhaps not surprising that integrity is important. But its sudden rise has surprised many analysts. In fact, a recent poll shows "moral and religious issues" now rank with "crime and drugs" as the top voter concerns.

To be sure, Republicans have been tempted to use the Clinton scandal to portray all Democrats as morally sullied.

But the only cases in which such character attacks really work is "if there's something specific the candidate has done," says Bruce Cain, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. And then, he says, "it can stick," because "in that it's a salient issue nationally, it becomes a salient issue locally."

Take Senator Moseley-Braun. Swept into office in 1992 - the "year of the woman" - she now trails her conservative challenger, state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R) in a race with big national import. As Republicans aim for a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate, they would delight in seeing the high-profile Moseley-Braun ousted.

With little exception, the main focus of the race so far has been the senator's ethics.

Questions are raised about her secret meetings, most recently in 1996, with a Nigerian dictator, the late Gen. Sani Abacha. She has also been accused of financial missteps, including in raising campaign funds. She counters that authorities never pursued the campaign allegations.

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."

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."

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