Clinton, Dole And The Digging Of Dirt: How Important Is This `Character' Thing?

Ready for a little exercise on the character issue? In the next few months, if Bob Dole wants any chance at being elected president, you can expect another dirty campaign, really dirty.

Faced with Bill Clinton's big lead in the polls, the advice that Dole will get is to go mean and nasty - or lose. What choice do you think he'll make?

That's why, at the end of today's column, I'll provide details for our exercise. You might as well prepare yourself for the upcoming campaign by sending in various scenarios that illustrate somebody's moral barometer.

Then, in a subsequent column, I'll list all those scenarios for you to rate. Let's see just how important this character thing is to you.

Quite obviously, as shown in previous elections, we are willing to overlook certain character flaws in a candidate because of other redeeming qualities.

For example, unsavory as it is to know about, you might overlook a candidate's reputed history for fooling around on his wife because you like the candidate's stand on abortion rights.

There is no character-flawless candidate. What negative ads are all about is making the opponent's alleged flaws as onerous as possible.

Slinging some more mud

Already, Floyd Brown, the Pacific Northwest kid who made a name for himself as a low-blow political advertising specialist, seems hungry to deliver some more mud in the 1996 presidential campaign.

You might remember the 1988 campaign, with the baiting Willie Horton ad. Horton was a convicted murderer who was on a weekend furlough under legislation that had been signed by then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Horton raped a woman and attacked her fiance, and was destined to a loser's life in prison.

Then Floyd Brown made him a star with his TV ads.

In 1992, you might remember news stories about a $4.99 phone line in which you got to hear the infamous tapes of Gennifer Flowers talking on the phone with Bill Clinton. That was another Floyd Brown creation.

The cable companies that were supposed to run the ads refused, but Brown accomplished his goal. He put Gennifer Flowers back in the news.

For those throwing out the mud, that must be part of the fun in dirty campaigns, seeing what muck sticks to a candidate.

In 1988 the mud from the Willie Horton ad stuck to Dukakis, and he was tagged as soft on crime.

In 1992 we decided to ignore Gennifer. She was OK as bimbo fodder for the tabloids or to sell Penthouse magazine, but we decided to give Clinton a "bye" on that character issue.

This year, Brown is among those asking the courts to release Clinton's videotaped testimony at the first Whitewater trial.

Brown must be salivating at the TV commercials he could produce, disingenuously saying that all he wants to do is "help educate and inform the public . . ." At least Floyd Brown gets this little smile when he says stuff like that.

Not just a GOP tactic

Throwing mud is not just a Republican franchise, especially after some unfortunate comments by Dole about cigarettes not being addictive. Clinton supporters have been showing up at Dole rallies with "Butt Man" costumes. The insinuation is pretty much that Dole is out there handing packs of Marlboros to sixth-graders.

Somehow, in the coming months, we'll have to wade through all this, deciding which garbage about the character of Clinton or Dole is real and which isn't, and if it is real, how does it compare with the other garbage.

Which gets us back to our exercise. What would you include on a character barometer?

Fooling around on your spouse? Accepting large donations from tobacco companies? Letting ultraconservative religious types set the agenda at your presidential convention, not because you agree with them but because you want their vote? Not bowing to ultraconservative religious types? Having ex-pot smokers in the White House?

During the next 10 days, you're welcome to send in your suggestions.

The mailing address is: Erik Lacitis, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle 98111. The fax number is 464-8460. The e-mail address is:

Start thinking mud. You'll be surprised at how easy it is.

Erik Lacitis' column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. His phone number is 464-2237.