HOW does a presidential candidate display his character without making a contrast to his opponent's - especially in a campaign when character matters as much as issues?
Both Al Gore and George W. Bush have toyed with personal attacks. In a famous 1991 quote, Mr. Gore even said that a presidential candidate should "rip the lungs out of anybody else who's in the race."
Last week, Mr. Bush dipped into so-called negative campaigning by endorsing a television ad designed to cast doubt on Mr. Gore's truthfulness. He took a risk in playing the character card while Gore was stumping on the issues.
Bush hopes voters will put trustworthiness as quality No. 1 in a president after Bill Clinton. But does he really think his trustworthiness rises by dragging down Gore's?
Pointing out an opponent's flaws does provide a useful contrast for voters that the media and others may not provide. (At the least, it engages them, perhaps even compels them to vote.) And it may even force an opponent to show how his character will be useful in running the country and setting an example. Some argue that Gore's sharp elbows could be handy when dealing with Congress.
The GOP-funded ad that Bush endorsed does raise a legitimate issue about Gore's credibility over his strong pledge for campaign-finance reform. Many Justice Department prosecutors wanted an independent probe of Gore for his statements about questionable fundraising activities four years ago; the attorney general, appointed by President Clinton, did not agree.
Democrats, too, have jabbed at character, implying that Bush is anything but compassionate in TV ads about his record as Texas governor.
Political ads can only raise these issues in truncated, even distorted, ways. They make impressions, not an argument. Voters who see the anti-Gore ad may ask whether the vice president learned from his '96 fund-raising miscues and is now sincere about reform. After viewing the anti-Bush ads, they may ask whether one or two culled statistics really present a fair picture of education and healthcare in Texas.
Such ads would have more credibility if each candidate genuinely complimented his opponent's finer qualities and put the negatives in context.
A candidate who can slay stupidity and knight wisdom with the same sword of conviction would persuade voters in a way that simple mudslinging never can.
Both parties and campaigns are now aiming their ads at a select group of undecided voters in key swing states. Many voters want more than straight negativity to make a choice. They know not to take the ads at face value. At best, the ads may raise questions that may linger in voters' minds, unless they're positively and forthrightly answered by the candidates.
The ability to do that could be a fair test of character.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society