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WASHINGTON TODAY: The ’92 Campaign: Attack Dogs, Garbage Cans and Plumbers

July 8, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A slack economy, a spirited independent challenge and the lessons of 1988 are combining to turn an already nasty presidential campaign season into an earlier-than-usual three-way brawl.

The mud is flying fast and furious and in all directions. Yet the Democratic Convention doesn’t begin until Monday, the Republican convention is a month and a half off and President Bush is still the only candidate with a running mate.

Vice presidential candidates usually bear ″hatchet man″ responsibilities - a role Dan Quayle has assumed with gusto in recent days.

With Democrat Bill Clinton zeroing in on a running mate, even prospective Democratic vice presidential nominees are facing questions on their negative- campaigning prowess.

″I’m not usually thought of as an attack dog, but I can give a pretty good partisan speech,″ Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., one short-list contender, told reporters Tuesday.

Clinton and Texan Ross Perot seem to be doing fine in slam-dunk politics without relying on running mates. And Bush isn’t leaving all the dirty work to Quayle.

The ″attack dog″ phrase is Clinton’s. Perot has been chastising Republicans for ″dirty tricks.″ And a top aide to Bush likened campaign tactics of the Democrats and Perot to criminal activities of the Watergate burglars.

It all adds up to an intensity usually reserved for the final weeks of a campaign.

Here’s why this year’s contest is shaping up to what could be the nastiest ever:

- The failure of the economy to improve, born out by recent unemployment and other statistics, is robbing Bush of what had been his best high-road issue, forcing his campaign to put more emphasis on negative tactics.

- Perot’s popularity has prompted a wave of early attacks on his character and record from both parties, especially from Republicans. Perot has shown no reluctance to strike back.

- Clinton seems determined not to repeat the political miscalculation made in 1988 by Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, who failed to respond quickly to charges hurled at him by the Bush campaign.

The fact that Perot has what seems like an unlimited amount of money to spend on his own campaign - and on TV commercials - has the Bush and Clinton camps nervous.

Bush senior campaign adviser Charles Black said Bush ads should start appearing between the two conventions. Perot ads may come even sooner.

Meanwhile, Bush campaign officials will send Cabinet members, GOP governors and a variety of other prominent Republicans trooping to New York next week to provide a GOP counterpoint to the Democratic convention.

″We will be a visible presence,″ said Bush campaign spokeswoman Torie Clarke. ″We’re very well aware of the fact that Bill Clinton will get a bump out of this convention and his vice presidential nomination.″

Much of the slash-and-burn skirmishing is a prelude to television ads to come, suggests Karen Johnson Cartee, a University of Alabama political scientist and a specialist in negative campaigning.

″They want to discredit their opponents before their opponents start attacking them with negative ads,″ she said.

And she said all candidates are mindful of the political points Dukakis paid for not standing up sooner to Bush attacks.

″When you fail to refute the attacks against you, they stick. Mud sticks,″ Cartee said.

When Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a Republican, visited Arkansas on Monday to bash Clinton’s record as governor, two Clinton aides sat in the audience to immediately dispute his assault and to criticize Weld’s own record.

Clinton followed his aides, blasting Weld as ″one of the attack dogs for George Bush.″

When reports surfaced last week that Democrats had hired investigators to research Bush’s finances and the savings-and-loan dealings of son Neil, Bush grumbled: ″Let them muck around in my garbage can. They aren’t going to find anything.″

But presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater took it one step further.

″The Plumbers are back,″ Fitzwater said.

Fitzwater later said he didn’t mean to equate the Democratic opposition- research investigation and Perot’s alleged inquiries with the criminal 1972 break-in of the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel by a group known as the Plumbers.

Fitzwater probably was wise not to press the point. After all, it turned out that the Plumbers were working for a Republican president’s re-election committee.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Tom Raum covers national politics for The Associated Press.

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