Pondering the post-scandal election dynamic

White House hopefuls are lining up at the starting blocks of the first post-scandal presidential election since 1976. Vice President Al Gore, whose lock on the Democratic nomination strengthens daily, is challenged only by former Sen. Bill Bradley so far. On the other side, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole lead a growing pack of Republicans paying frequent visits to Iowa and New Hampshire these days.

Under normal circumstances, this would be typical political news. But the House impeachment of President Clinton and the Senate trial that acquitted him will have a profound effect on the unfolding presidential election.

Think back to 1976 and the presidential contest that followed Richard Nixon's resignation. Gerald Ford, whose only connection to the Watergate scandal was his pardon of Nixon, nearly lost the nomination to fellow Republican Ronald Reagan.

The year was stranger yet for Democrats, who watched as a little-known governor from Georgia emerged as the dark horse who crossed the finish line.

A key to Jimmy Carter's success was his understanding of the mood of the country and the meaning of the Watergate legacy.

In 1976 Americans were searching for a candidate who was not Richard Nixon, and Mr. Carter made it clear that he was that candidate. He talked plainly about telling the truth and promised never to lie. He told the nation that he wanted a government as good as they were, without seeing any need to explain what that might mean. His audiences understood.

Carter proudly proclaimed that he was not a life-long politician and made a virtue out of his inexperience in national affairs. He carried his own suitcase, reassuring us that, unlike Nixon, he could never be an imperial president.

Carter won the White House when hardly anyone outside Georgia had even heard his name before the campaign began.

What will happen in 2000?

Despite his commanding front-runner status, Gore may find, as did Mr. Ford before him, that a candidate inheriting power from a problematic predecessor pays a high inheritance tax.

Mr. Clinton has clearly maintained better approval ratings in the polls than did Richard Nixon in the darkest days of Watergate.

But a recent survey by Fox News showed that 70 percent believe Clinton perjured himself before a grand jury. No Democrat will campaign as the public defender of Clinton's private transgressions. And as Ford distanced himself from his predecessor a quarter century ago, Gore must distance himself from Clinton without appearing disloyal.

The public and the media may fixate on avoiding another Clinton and look for candidates who appear never to have strayed sexually or come close to violating a law.

If such candidates can be found - and if Matt Drudge and Larry Flint find no skeletons, or anything else, in their closets - they may turn out to be an unusual collection of presidential hopefuls.

ALREADY there is talk about what some prospective presidents might have done in their younger days, and fear that setting too high a bar on past behavior will make capable candidates step aside.

A better result would be an election season with serious attention to candidate character. Voters legitimately want to know if candidates have shown courage or cowardice, conviction or confusion, compassion or conceit in their public and private lives.

Candidates are expected to tell us about themselves. When they do, we listen. In 1976, Carter's unique career experiences, sincere religious beliefs, and legitimate claims to be a Washington outsider contributed to his victory.

Would a character-centered campaign, devoid of sexual McCarthyism, produce a dark horse nominee like Jimmy Carter? Perhaps. Uncertainty about what the voters are looking for in the aftermath of a major presidential scandal could produce a larger, richer, and less conventional field of candidates.

A few might turn out to be unabashedly unslick, willing to speak the truth, and able to keep faith with the country and with their spouses.

That would be an election we could all enjoy.

* Robert A. Strong is the Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va., and the author of the forthcoming book 'Working in the World: Jimmy Carter and the Making of American Foreign Policy' (LSU Press).

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