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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ethics Weapon Risky For Clinton and Dole

Republican presidential challenger Bob Dole, still dropping in the polls despite unleashing double-barreled sleaze attacks against Bill Clinton all week, faces what many see as his last stand Wednesday night as he goes head-to-head with the Democratic president in the final debate before the Nov. 4 vote.

In a town hall-style meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the two candidates will field questions for 90 minutes from carefully screened voters who say they are still undecided in their choice. In 1992, Clinton thrived on such an atmosphere, easily outpointing then-President George Bush, who looked stiff and uncomfortable in the freewheeling format. But this time, Clinton is expected to face a barrage of questions about his personal character and ethical failings in his administration, questions largely avoided in his first debate with Dole, which was noted for its civility -- and its dullness.

Dole and his allies have tried the lay the groundwork for a sharper, more lively exchange with nearly a week's worth of heavy emphasis on Clinton's perceived ethical shortcomings. For days, the American media have been dominated by reports on $425,000 in contributions which the Democratic National Committee received from an Indonesian couple with ties to a Jakarta-based banking empire that has backed Clinton since his days as Arkansas governor. While presidential aides shrug off the reports as last-gasp campaign desperation and note that the contributions are legal under existing law, the Dole camp has hammered away at the theme, even bringing Newt Gingrich out of exile to call for a Watergate-style investigation into the matter.

Gingrich, the once-powerful but highly unpopular Speaker of the House, had been seen as a liability to the Dole campaign. Some analysts say his re-emergence now is an indication that the Dole campaign is pulling out all the stops to rally the hardcore, hard-right Republican faithful, since they have had little success in reaching the broad center where Clinton has firmly planted himself.

Wednesday's debate is seen by most as Dole's last chance to recapture that center, which he had in fact long represented as the standard-bearer of "moderate" Republicanism. But the party's turn to the right has driven its moderates away in droves, while Dole's record of political pragmatism has cost him the fervor of the GOP's new faithful. This was shown most starkly Tuesday when a group of Republican office-holders and power brokers in Orange County, California -- regarded as the heart of rock-ribbed Republican orthodoxy -- announced they were deserting Dole and endorsing Clinton, according to The Associated Press.

While many Republican strategists have urged Dole to take the gloves off before now, there have been compelling reasons for the challenger to avoid an all-out mudfest. For most of his long tenure in Washington, Dole was known not for any large-scale legislative initiatives but for his finesse in crafting tax breaks and favorable laws for powerful business interests, both in his native Kansas and throughout the nation. These deals, too, were entirely legal -- like the Indonesian contributions to Clinton -- but, like those contributions, they tend to leave a bad impression on voters: They show a little too clearly the way business is really done in Washington, behind the lofty rhetoric of both parties.

Dole is particularly vulnerable on his connections with the giant agribusiness firm, Archer Daniels Midland Co., whose president, Dwayne Andreas, a close personal friend of Dole's, has been a veritable gold mine of contributions to Republican coffers (and often Democratic ones as well). On Monday, two days before the debate, ADM agreed to pay $100 million in the largest criminal anti-trust fine in history and to plead guilty to fixing the prices for two essential ingredients widely used in modern food production, The Washington Post reported. Dole's legislative record shows that he has championed ADM's causes well, preserving tax breaks for its corn-fed ethanol fuel concerns and blocking breaks or initiatives for competing alternative fuels.

Again, it is not so much the question of illegality as the perceptions of cronyism, favoritism and wheeler-dealing that plague the records of both Clinton and Dole; and no doubt both camps have been operating under the Cold War doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" when it comes to going full-throttle on sleaze. That is why, despite the heat-up in rhetoric this week, many observers will be surprised if Dole does more than set a few brush fires around the edges of the larger ethical questions in Wednesday's debate; he cannot be sure how much firepower Clinton would have left to respond to a first-strike assault.