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In his final debate with President Clinton, Bob Dole did very well. He was aggressive, focused, emphasized his main points, and he could have had the president on the defensive most of the evening. However, Clinton ignored the charges leveled against him about ethics, liberalism and big government, which lessened the impact of Dole's assault.

Dole's best opportunity to energize the Republicans' real base -- the moral conservatives who see the economy a distant second to the fragmentation of the social fabric -- came when a minister, Ron Kite, asked: "This great nation has been established by the Founding Fathers, who possessed very strong Christian beliefs and godly principles. If elected president of the United States, what would you do to return this nation to those basic principles? And, also, do you feel that the office of the president has the responsibility to set the role example to inspire our young people?"

Dole should have been able to hit this softball out of the park. He might have talked about self-evident truth and how, instead of God-ordained rights, we have been practicing in recent years court-ordained rights. He might have noted that government cannot make a people moral if they wish to pursue hedonistic pleasures and avoid responsibility. But the government can approach the law as something shaped not by opinion polls but by our Creator, to conform us to a standard which promotes the general welfare.

Instead, Dole volunteered that he had prayed with his wife and daughter before the debate and "if it's God's will, whatever happens, it happens." And then he slipped off into the refuge of many politicians -- the proposed school prayer amendment to the Constitution, something that won't pass and is meaningless.

Why didn't he talk about the general devaluation of human life, from partial-birth abortion to euthanasia and what liberal Supreme Court justices will do to further undermine the value and fabric of life?

Repeatedly Dole returned to economic matters, saying the one thing that will change America is getting the economy rolling again. But hasn't our focus on material things contributed to some of the problems now hurting families? Will more money in our pockets mean fewer divorces, less crime and more hope? Why did our parents' generation fare better with far fewer material things? It was because their souls were rich in the things money can't buy.

Dole spoke against "special rights" for homosexuals, which has become a code phrase. He should have said that since some homosexuals have changed and abandoned that lifestyle, they ought not to be included as a class under civil-rights legislation designed to protect blacks, women and the disabled from discrimination. Such laws were written because of a person's status, which cannot change. Homosexual practice is about behavior, which can change.

Dole followed his advisers' instructions to the sound bite. He got in some good shots about big government, questionable donations to the Democratic National Committee by Indonesian contributors, integrity and keeping one's word (he said he'd keep his). He noted it is the governors, not the president, who are getting people off welfare and the Republican Congress, not the White House, that deserves the credit for reducing the cost and size of government.

But these were all jabs. There was no knockout punch. The ultimate issue Dole could have raised is why character matters. If a president can't be relied on to say what he means and mean what he says, how do we know that what he is telling us now is what he will do if re-elected? Dole could have dramatically pledged to resign the Oval Office if he doesn't deliver, with the help of a Republican Congress, on three or four promises.

According to those horrible instant polls the networks do, Dole apparently changed few minds. The only question remaining is if in the next two and a half weeks a majority will recall what their parents tried to teach them about character, integrity and responsibility.

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