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'Impeachment' is a subtle party line


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 4, 2000

PHILADELPHIA -- Republicans rarely used the word "impeachment" at their convention this week, but there were plenty of reminders.

Delegates bought bumper stickers that said "Clinton Lies" and buttons that said "Remove the stain from the Oval Office." House members who prosecuted the president were some of the most popular speakers for fundraisers and state delegation meetings.

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The rhetoric and the fondness for the impeachment alumni reflect a dual strategy for using the issue in the 2000 campaign.

Publicly, Republicans don't get specific. They use oblique references, as vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney did Wednesday night when he said Texas Gov. George W. Bush will "restore decency and integrity to the Oval Office."

Privately, they are more blunt. They use impeachment to fire up their volunteers and persuade contributors to open their wallets. Rep. Bill McCollum, a Longwood Republican who served as an impeachment manager, has used the issue in fundraising letters.

"My decision to run for Senate was greatly influenced by the time I spent serving as one of the House managers trying to protect the integrity of the Constitution and the nation," McCollum wrote in one letter. He said the contributions were needed because "President Clinton's liberal Democrat supporters have now targeted me for defeat."

Rep. Lindsey Graham, an impeachment manager from South Carolina who frequently spoke against Clinton on national TV, remains so popular in the party that he has campaigned for 30 GOP candidates around the nation and plans to help at least 15 more.

"A year and a half ago, I thought impeachment would cost us control of the House," he said. Instead, he found it had little political impact with the public, but stayed popular with party activists.

Graham says that's because the GOP's conservative core -- a group he describes as "a niche market" -- likes the fact that the impeachment managers put principles ahead of public opinion polls. There was strong public opposition to impeachment, but the managers did it anyway.

At party meetings, Republican leaders aren't shy about bringing up the issue.

At a breakfast of the Florida delegation Thursday, retiring Sen. Connie Mack praised McCollum for his impeachment work.

"He did it with grace, he did it with knowledge and a commitment to his constitutional responsibility," Mack said of McCollum, who is running for Mack's seat.

You won't see those words in a TV ad, because Republican candidates don't want to call attention to their failed effort. But Mack's comments were popular with the 200 Republican loyalists gathered in the Philadelphia hotel ballroom.

Vice President Al Gore was not accused of any crimes in the impeachment case, but Republicans say his alleged misdeeds in fundraising scandals reveal a pattern of trouble in the Clinton-Gore administration.

Gov. Jeb Bush said Thursday that Republicans need to raise the issues of honesty and integrity, but he said the issues "shouldn't be the dominant nature of the campaign."

Bush said there have been so many Clinton-Gore scandals that Republicans don't have to be specific.

"You don't even have to mention names any more," Bush said. "You just say we need honor and decency in the White House and everyone knows" who you are talking about.

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