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WASHINGTON - Jack Kemp set out to reach the oval office of the White House nearly a quarter of a century ago. Last Wednesday night, his road got miles longer.

Kemp's debate performance deprived Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole of his last, best opportunity to introduce character about the Clinton White House into the campaign.

Without the kind of miracle a truly competitive Kemp could clearly have helped Dole achieve, Dole will be history on Nov. 6. He will have as much influence on who the next convention nominates as Dan Quayle -- perhaps less than Quayle.

Those who will be running the primaries and state GOP caucuses in 2000 include House Speaker Newt Gingrich, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Sen. Connie Mack of Florida, etc.

Some of them are locked in the fight of their lives to save the Republican majorities in the House and Senate from a Bill Clinton landslide. They may survive this time.

But, according to some Republican incumbents who are hanging by their fingernails, these future convention managers will not be thanking Jack Kemp if they make it.

As far as anyone who watched Kemp's debate with Vice President Al Gore knows, the balanced federal budget and welfare reform were Bill Clinton's inspiration, not issues pressed on an unwilling president by Dole, Gingrich, Armey, Lott & Co.

The viewers would think that the remarkable decline in federal outlays, which helped Clinton reduce the deficit, as he says, "four years in a row," were the result of Gore's program to "reinvent government," and not cuts forced on the administration by the GOP.

There are Republican congressional candidates running in marginal districts who are bleeding from attacks because of their budget-cutting votes. They are not grateful this week to Jack Kemp, and they will remember.

Character involves taking credit for only those achievements you're truly responsible for. The Clinton-Gore campaign exploits, from a Republican viewpoint, things that Republicans did.

Gore gave Kemp plenty of openings to discuss the Democrats' version of "history" when the vice president goaded Kemp for unflattering things he said about Dole. Kemp merely pretended he didn't hear him.

When Gore chided Kemp for his adherence to the gold standard, Kemp had a perfect opening for another kind of character issue: whether White House appointees and White House official conduct meets the common standards of presidential propriety.

The "character issues" that Dole and Kemp are quite wisely avoiding are those dealing with the president's behavior on private time and Mrs. Clinton's past conduct as an attorney in Little Rock, Ark.

Dole would be crazy to discuss Whitewater and Paula Corbin Jones. These subjects are also off limits for Kemp.

The character issues the public might want vented are those on how the Clintons conduct, at public expense and public risk, the people's business at the White House.

Why did the White House overrule the Secret Service and give security clearance to Clinton staffers who were found to have used crack cocaine, as agents testified to the House July 17? What does such a standard say to the country?

What does the imprisonment of the deputy attorney general, on charges of cheating his law partners and his clients, say about the standards the White House uses to fill critically important jobs?

How far does the president's standard for "executive privilege" go when he can suppress reports about drug addiction from FBI Director Louis Freeh and Buffalo's Tom Constantine, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration?

What, Kemp might have asked, is Gore's own standard on trafficking in confidential FBI personal files on Republican appointees to the regular White House staff and the National Security Council? Would Gore, for example, have appointed Craig Livingston, erstwhile opposition researcher, as White House security personnel chief?

Are such questions beneath the concern even of a vice president, who has little better to do than go to funerals and reinvent government?

Kemp reshaped the character issue into a personal issue, a matter of taste, even, when he said, "It is beneath Bob Dole to go after anyone personally."

With that well-rehearsed line, Kemp dismissed matters of state as matters of etiquette. And thus, he gave Gore, and Clinton, free rides on questions that an honorable man like Rep. Bill Clinger, R-Pa., spent months investigating.

What coach Bob Dole needed from "the quarterback," as he calls Kemp, Wednesday night were some heaves across the middle to stop the blitzing. Instead, Kemp threw interceptions.

When Kemp was nominated, some cynics in San Diego thought it would take only a few months before Kemp separated himself from Dole. Even then, nobody thought he would do it passively.

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