Posted on July 29, 1996 in Washington Watch

Both the Clinton and Dole campaigns raced to raise their political standings by the opening of the Olympic Games in Atlanta last week. Ordinarily, the Olympics are expected to dominate the U.S. media for at least three weeks and create a virtual news blackout for politicians trying to get their messages out to voters. In fact, during the past week, only coverage of the tragic explosion of TWA flight 800 was able to compete with news from the Olympics.

As a result, both parties are assuming that their candidate’s standings will remain frozen until the end of the games and the beginning of the Republican national Convention on August 12. This, of course, poses a serious potential problem for Republican challenger Bob Dole. If, in fact, Dole is remains down 15 percentage points behind Bill Clinton (as many polls continue to show), he will be at a serious disadvantage in September.

Another difficulty facing the Republican challenger’s effort to catch up in the polls is the interference he can expect from the newly-formed Reform Party.

With the Republican Convention coming two weeks before Clinton’s Democratic event (the Republican Convention is August 12-15 in San Diego; the Democratic Convention is August 26-29 in Chicago), the Republicans had expected that their nominee would get a boost in the polls during the week following their affair. Such a boost normally occurs, since the convention allows the party to dominate news coverage and present its candidate and message in an unfiltered light.

The Reform Party, however, has sabotaged this Republican strategy by cleverly designing their nominating convention as a two-part affair. The Reform Party will open its own convention the day before the Republican event with nominating speeches by its two competing candidates, party founder Ross Perot and his rival former Colorado Governor Dick Lamm. The Reform Party members will vote by mail or electronically during the following week and their convention will reconvene to announce their candidate after the Republican Party convention concludes.

Since the Reform Party has the only contested campaign, it is expected to draw press coverage, thereby effectively limiting the size of the media spotlight on the Republican event.

All of this pressure has contributed to intensify the campaign atmosphere during the past month, with Republicans working feverishly to cut Clinton’s lead and the White House fighting to hold their ground until August.

During the past month Bill Clinton has taken more hits than any political candidate in recent history. One will recall how Clinton survived a series of negative stories to win the Democratic primaries in 1992. As President, he once again suffered a series of attacks and negative press resulting from his own miscues in 1993. But the past month has been more difficult than either of those two prior periods.

In rapid succession, the White House has been hit by: a scathing Republican attack at the conclusion of the Senate Whitewater investigation; the conclusion of one Whitewater trial (in which several close business partners of the Clintons were convicted) and the start of another trial (in which one of the President’s closest associates has been implicated); a scandal resulting from the illegal possession of the personal FBI files of former Reagan and Bush Administration officials in the hands of a White House political operative; and the release of three best-selling books, all of which contained unfavorable stories about either the President or the First Lady.

All of those combined have produced a month of extremely bad press for the White House. Surprisingly, the impact has yet to tell in the polls. There is some slippage in the President’s momentum, but the hits have not begun to look at all fatal.

While these negative stories, some of which have been deliberately engineered by the Republicans, has not erased Bill Clinton’s lead over Bob Dole, they have contributed to an erosion of public confidence in the character of the President. There has been, as Dole himself described the situation, a “drip, drip, drip” effect of constant attacking and erosion of the public perception of Clinton.

What has worked in the President’s favor is the fact that the nation’s economy is performing well and the public appears to be satisfied. At the same time, all of the allegations made by the press, the recently published books and Republicans are viewed as largely partisan attacks lacking the proof necessary to directly connect the President to any wrongdoing.

The past month has not been an altogether good one for Dole, either. The Republican candidate has encountered some difficulties as he has endeavored to break free from the shackles of the right wing of his party. Since right wing activists have come to dominate the nominating process in the Republican party, Dole adopted many of their positions during the primary season. Now, in an effort to make himself more acceptable to centrist voters, Dole has attempted to shift his stance on a number of issues, which has caused him some embarrassment and negative press coverage.

His effort to include “pro-choice” Republicans has angered his pro-life/anti-abortion supporters and his recent flip-flop on gun control also backfired.

One by-product of the domination of the far right wing has been the decision by Colin Powell, the very popular retired General who recently became a Republican, to refuse any formal role in the Republican campaign this year. As is clear from Dole’s repeated efforts to court him, this is a loss for the Republican campaign.

And in two instances this month the media caught a glimpse of the old “angry” Bob Dole as he snapped at a popular television newswoman who pressed about his position about whether or not tobacco is addictive (Dole said it was not), and his charge that the leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP, the largest African American organization in the U.S.) had tried to “set him up” and embarrass him when Dole did not accept the NAACP’s invitation to address their national convention.

In short, neither candidate has fared particularly well this summer, and the heat of the campaign has just begun.

A contributing factor to the public’s negative perception of the candidates has been the increasingly mean-spirited comments of television comics and the hostile remarks of television news commentators. During the past decade, television in particular has been breaking new ground in attacks on political leaders.

Now, almost nightly, the airwaves are filled with what can only be described as tasteless jokes about the President, the First Lady and Senator Dole. A recent study showed that 40% of all Americans are receiving their primary information about politics from watching these programs, and so there should be little surprise that public attitudes about politics are so low.

Nevertheless, despite the attacks, the negative press and the muddying of the political waters, this year’s campaign will be an important and fascinating one to watch. In many ways, this election will be one of the most important elections of the century. And it will ultimately be decided on issues, not personalities.

Because of the Republican takeover of the House and Senate in 1994 and the efforts by the Republican leadership to fundamentally change the direction of government and its relationship with the citizens, voters are becoming aware of the clear nature of the choice that lies before them in this election.

Voting for Bob Dole will bring a Republican to the White House who will further this dramatic shift in the nation’s direction. On the other hand, Bill Clinton has made the point that under his leadership the economy has significantly improved and what are now basic social services have been protected. As a result of these fundamental choices, several voting blocs have emerged to harden their stances behind their parties and their candidates.

This is one explanation for why despite strong negative ratings on questions of character and confidence, Bill Clinton still maintains a lead over Dole. Voters are not choosing a patron saint, they are choosing a direction for the country.

In all probability, the negative campaigning will not only continue but will intensify in the fall. It will shake voter confidence in their leaders and poison the public debate – but it will not ultimately affect how most voters will make their choice in November.

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