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Activists Expect Personal Politics

March 6, 1999

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ As impeachment fades to a messy memory, activists in key early states are bracing for another bruising round of fighting over the personal foibles of politicians.

Though polls show most voters do not care, some Republican activists are loathe to forgive even youthful indiscretions.

``There are those who say a leopard can’t change his spots,″ said Chuck Hurley, a leading social conservative and former legislator.

``Is somebody going to push it? Absolutely,″ said veteran GOP activist Mary Boate. ``The questions will be asked.″

Iowa’s precinct caucuses next February mark the initial high-profile test of the presidential nominating season. The nature of Iowa’s caucus system and the nation’s political climate in the wake of a year-long battle over presidential sexual misconduct have set the stage for a campaign with a distinctly personal touch.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain already have faced questioning. Bush concedes he ``did some irresponsible things when I was young and irresponsible,″ and McCain has admitted to being responsible for the ending of his first marriage.

Both argue those indiscretions happened years ago, and they decline to discuss them further.

Recent polls show a majority of Americans, about 60 percent, believe presidential candidates should be held to a higher moral standard than average Americans. But four out of five do not want candidates asked if they ever have committed adultery.

While President Clinton survived, Republicans are campaigning among an electorate likely to be much less tolerant of misbehavior, some argue.

``They are going to have to assume that when they come to Iowa and New Hampshire, they are going to have to explain all that stuff,″ said Bob Haus, a respected GOP strategist who has signed on with publisher Steve Forbes. ``That’s the beauty of a small state. The questions get asked.″

Exit polling in Iowa in 1996 showed a third of caucus-goers identified with the conservative Christian Coalition and said ``conservative values″ were the most important quality in a candidate.

Consultant Greg Mueller says the character of the Republican primary electorate will dictate the tenor.

``The Republican Party treats personal behavior differently than Democrats,″ said Mueller. ``We tend to punish people.″

There are other views, including that of Chuck Larson, a young Republican legislator who led a delegation to Austin, Texas, urging Bush to make the race. He said conservatives accept Bush’s confessions and do not want details.

``Bush says he’s not going to inventory his sins and I’m very comfortable with that,″ Larson said.

Ralph Reed, a former head of the Christian Coalition who is now offering advice to Bush, said Christian conservatives lean toward accepting confessions.

``I think if someone has made a mistake in their past, particularly in the distant past, it’s going to be very low in the hierarchy of concerns,″ said Reed. ``There’s a deep reservoir among moral conservatives for forgiveness.″

There also are differing takes on how Clinton’s experience will affect the race.

Mueller argued that GOP voters are going to make very sure they nominate a candidate who is squeaky clean.

``Next time around we’ve got to make sure we’ve taken care of the problem,″ he said.

``I think Clinton’s experience has largely negated the potency of these kinds of issues,″ Reed said.

Others argue that the nature of the caucus process automatically will make personal issues important.

Not many people go to caucuses _ fewer than 100,000 in 1996 _ and those who do must stand up in front of neighbors and friends and declare their support. Most want to meet and talk with candidates before making a choice.

Though most people say they are sick of personal revelations, Boate said something more complex is at work.

``They are not talking a lot about it in public,″ she said. ``Are they talking about it over the coffee table? Are they talking about it after church? They probably are.″

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