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When Bob Dole left the Republican National Convention here in August, he was not alone in thinking that, despite all the problems he had encountered, he had a real shot at overcoming President Clinton's persistent double-digit lead.

But as he returned here this week for the final town meeting "debate" with Clinton, it was evident to everyone -- including the realists in his own camp -- that only an unprecedented reversal of public opinion would rescue the Republicans from a one-sided presidential defeat.

What makes that all the more galling to GOP partisans is the fact that Clinton still has only the most tenuous grip on public confidence. Everywhere I have been this fall -- from the precincts of Verona, N.J., to Ankeny, Iowa, to Phoenix and now back here, it is obvious that many, many voters harbor deep doubts about Clinton's character, veracity and consistency.

In the past week, Republicans have been conducting a public debate among themselves about how -- or whether -- to exploit these doubts in an overt way. This is a no-brainer. Long ago -- certainly by the time of the Republican convention -- Dole should have firmly placed the questions of Clinton's personal conduct out of bounds. The allegations of Paula Corbin Jones and the Arkansas issues under investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr should be left to the courts.

But with equal firmness, Dole should have insisted that the many scandals of the Clinton White House and administration need to be in the campaign -- not for partisan gain but because they raise such troubling questions. Starting with the unexplained presence of more than 700 FBI background files for two years in the hands of a notably inappropriate White House/campaign operative and going on to the evident misuse of the FBI in the White House travel office firings, these incidents raise serious doubts whether the president, in his role as chief law enforcer, adequately impressed on his own subordinates the need to obey the law.

Far too often, abuse of power has been the problem in second-term presidencies. The Clinton administration has shown -- in its dealings with interest groups, contributors and with Congress -- increasing tendencies to act as if it could ignore propriety and legality.

This is not the only issue that Dole should have dealt with in a straightforward fashion far earlier. For months, the Dole campaign has tried to deny what every reporter on the trail has known, that Dole's age is a real concern to many voters who otherwise might want to support an alternative to Clinton.

Dole has dealt with the issue obliquely. He released the famous "treadmill photo" of himself doing his daily workout. He made public his medical records. But he never addressed those voters' concerns directly.

Instead of helping the public make a wise decision by framing such important issues in a serious way, Dole has raised questions which are at best irrelevant and, too often, self-damaging. The tangent on tobacco and its addictiveness is one example. His challenge to the Family and Medical Leave law of 1993 is another.

That law is sensible social policy and arguably one of the most popular enactments of the Clinton presidency. Dole's denunciations of this is just another bit of foolishness that explains why Clinton came to San Diego in far better position than he deserves.

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