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Press Bill Press is co-host of CNN's Crossfire. He is providing exclusive analysis to CNN during the election season.

Bill Press: Republicans set their sights on -- Bill Clinton!!

PHILADELPHIA (CNN) -- For two days, this convention was just too nice. Republicans were nice to each other. They were nice to Democrats. They were even nice to me!

But all that changed when Dick Cheney took the podium Wednesday night. His words were powerful, even if his delivery was not -- and they were just what delegates, and reporters, were dying to hear.

I watched the speech from a skybox stuffed with national Republican leaders and top advisers to the Bush campaign. When Cheney leveled his first blast at Bill Clinton, one former Republican House leader turned to me with a big grin on his face and said: "It's about time!"

After all, political activists are carnivores, not vegetarians. They come to conventions looking for red meat -- and Dick Cheney gave them plenty to chew on. He labeled the Clinton-Gore administration eight years of "opportunities squandered," attacked Clinton for destroying the dignity of the Oval Office and tied Bill Clinton to Al Gore's tail: "We will never see one without thinking of the other." They came in together, and they should go out together, Cheney insisted, repeating three times the refrain Gore used in his own acceptance speech in 1992: "It's time for them to go."

Thursday night, George Bush mainly took the high road, talking platitudes about public policy. But he, too, couldn't resist slamming Bill Clinton as an empty vessel: "So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill ... So much promise, to no great purpose." Later, Bush brought the crowd to its feet with what has become the signature line of his campaign -- well-rehearsed at every campaign rally, down to the gesture of raising his right hand: "When I put my hand on the Bible, I will swear to not only uphold the laws of the land, I will swear to uphold the honor and dignity of the office to which I have been elected."

So, there you have it: the Republicans' November strategy: They're going to run against Bill Clinton! They want to make this election a referendum on Clinton's personal misconduct -- and, by pairing him with Clinton, defeat Al Gore.

How could so many smart people make such a dumb decision?

First of all, most people just don't want to hear about Monica Lewinsky anymore, no matter how fixated on her Republicans still are. Americans don't approve of Clinton's behavior, but they've long since forgiven him. They're not going to turn around now and blame Al Gore.

Besides, Bush has to be careful, talking about restoring dignity to the Oval Office. What dignity? Does he think Americans have forgotten about Iran-Contra? How about the conviction of Ollie North, the resignation of Ed Meese, Ronald Reagan on the witness stand, the raising of funds for the Nicaraguan Contras inside the White House and the conviction of Caspar Weinberger? How much dignity was there in shredding documents? And which is less dignified: lying under oath about making deals with terrorists or lying under oath about oral sex? That's the problem with the dignity argument. It cuts both ways.

But the biggest problem with Bush's plan to target Bill Clinton and his (mostly manufactured) scandals is: they've tried it before -- and lost both times.

In 1996, they ran against Clinton and Whitewater. They lost. In 1998, they ran against Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. They lost. Now they want to try one more time? They're starting to look like Charlie Brown, falling for Lucy's football trick every Thanksgiving.

Don't Republicans get it? Most Americans don't hate Clinton the way right-wingers do. They separate the personal from the political. They know Clinton's a flawed man -- aren't we all? -- but they love what he's done with the economy, and they support his policies on health care, Medicare, Social Security, gun control, education, choice, affirmative action -- and, yes, even tax cuts. They'd re-elect him for a third term, if they could.

By declaring war on Bill Clinton, Republicans leave Philadelphia on a train to nowhere. Warts and all, Bill Clinton has beat them once. He's beat them twice. If they persist in making him the candidate, he'll easily beat them again.

Bill Press is co-host of CNN's Crossfire. He is providing exclusive analysis to CNN during the election season.

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Friday, August 4, 2000


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