THE character issue cuts many ways. It can be a high-minded effort to define needed qualities of leadership. Or it can degenerate into character assassination - seeing who can throw the most mud.
Candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush will have ample opportunity to decide which it'll be. Character will be central to this presidential race, and the vice president, clearly, will be central to the issue.
Consider this week's news. Mr. Gore tried to stake out a reformist position on campaign finances. That brought a gleam to Mr. Bush's eye. He wasted no time in bringing up the excesses of 1996 - Gore's fund-raising trip to a Buddhist temple, his money-grubbing phone calls from the White House, and the conviction of his '96 fund-raiser Maria Hsia.
Gore's defense is that he admits his errors and is now committed to changing not only himself but the system. He challenges Bush to join him by forswearing "soft money" donations and settling for weekly debates.
Will it work? Only if Gore can convince voters he's serious. He'll have to stick to this issue no matter how furiously he's pounded by the '96 allegations - and they're serious ones, left unanswered by Janet Reno's refusal to appoint an independent counsel. If Gore sticks it out and forces Bush to articulate more clearly his own stand on campaign-finance reform, all to the good.
But that won't be the end of Gore's character trials. Ken Starr's successor, Robert Ray, will be releasing final reports on various facets of the Clinton-era scandals right through the end of summer.
It's not likely that any of these - FBI files wrongly collected by a White House staffer, the firing of White House travel office employees, and the Whitewater real-estate transactions - will touch Gore. But they'll keep attention focused on the darker side of the Clinton-Gore years. Mr. Ray may also report on whether the president can be prosecuted on leaving office for lying during the Monica Lewinsky investigation.
Most of the public may be tired of all this. Yet it hangs in the atmosphere and may deepen the feeling among many centrist voters that a break with the past eight years is needed.
Bush proclaims he is that break. Gore will cling to some of the Clinton mantle, while trying to claim McCain's crown of reform. This will test his ability to be perceived as a man of character, not just an agile politician.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society