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THE CHARACTER ISSUE

It's character, stupid.

That, at least, had been the conventional Republican wisdom about the No. 1 issue in the presidential campaign before George W. Bush decided to get off that hobby horse and attack Vice President Gore on the issues. Rick Lazio's campaign for the U.S. Senate provides an interesting counterpoint. He's still making character and trust a centerpoint of his campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton.

With Gore and Clinton inextricably linked to a morally tainted president, it was to be expected that Republicans would, at some point, make character and trust the focus of their campaigns. It's not a preposterous idea. Character clearly is important in our leaders. Candidates can tell us how they would act in specific situations, but it is character that lets us know what will guide them in the thousands of other matters that do not happen to come up in the course of a campaign.

Still, the strategy contains obvious risks. Bush's strategists apparently now feel it's the wrong way to go. If Lazio is wielding this sword without some real sense of trepidation, he has not been paying attention for the past eight years.

1992. Then-President Bush pins his re-election hopes on two issues -- his success in the Persian Gulf War and Bill Clinton's questionable character. Result: Clinton wins.

1996. Bob Dole goes to battle against Clinton, insisting that Clinton's character is the No. 1 issue. "Where's the outrage?" he bellows when Americans yawn. Result: Clinton wins.

1998. Then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich nationalizes congressional elections by making them a litmus test on Clinton, who had been forced to acknowledge dissembling on his involvement with Monica Lewinsky, and was just six weeks shy of becoming only the second president to be impeached. Result: Republicans suffer a humiliating and historic loss of House seats.

That history is like a giant, flashing neon sign but, oddly, Lazio advisers don't seem to be questioning the wisdom of their strategy. And maybe they have good reason. With the nation said to be suffering a terminal case of "Clinton fatigue" and to be thirsting for leaders with a reliable moral center, perhaps the first lady will be unable to free herself from the moral brier patch cultivated by her husband. Maybe the strategy will work this time. Maybe.

But Republicans should know better than to trust themselves on this subject. They have routinely misread the public mind on this matter, if not actually gotten it wrong. Too often they seemed obsessed, to the detriment of other pressing issues.

That's the risk Lazio took last week in repeatedly raising the character issue, once glaring at Clinton and sneering that one of her responses was "positively Clintonesque." It'll play with the Clinton-haters, but what about the undecided voters, the people who want to know if he's got what it takes to be an effective senator? They might rather have heard some better acknowledgment of the problems with the upstate economy.

The Bush campaign apparently has come to the conclusion that it has to run against Gore, not Bill Clinton. The Lazio campaign appears to have reached a different conclusion. Which will be the more effective message? Stay tuned.

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