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(Cheryl Carlin)

"Those Aren't Rumors"

Two decades ago an anonymous telephone call sank Gary Hart's presidential campaign—and rewrote the rules of political reporting

And yes, the mainstream press does probe private lives, when it feels they are relevant. A weeklong media frenzy followed Drudge's supposed Kerry scoop; no one found anything to corroborate it. At the beginning of the current campaign, there was copious coverage of GOP candidate Rudy Giuliani's marital difficulties. A New York Times report in February on the ties between presumptive Republican nominee John McCain and a female lobbyist was indeed widely criticized—but less for being inappropriate than for presenting the uncorroborated accusations of anonymous former McCain staffers.

For candidates, this is tricky terrain. Some try simply to put their actions in the most favorable light. Clinton went on CBS' "60 Minutes" to say that he and his wife had had "problems in our marriage," but that their bond was strong. Giuliani said only that he and his third wife, Judith, "love each other very much."

But campaigns are not, ultimately, about the candidates and the press; the voters have the last word. And for them, revelations of unsaintly behavior are not necessarily fatal. Despite his impeachment, Clinton left office in 2001 with a public approval rating of more than 60 percent for his job performance; Giuliani's marital history did not prevent him from polling strongly among Republicans on the eve of the primaries. Paul Taylor calls the phenomenon "the widening of the circle of acceptability."

Voters now "are increasingly willing to view these scandals on a case-by-case basis," Tom Rosenstiel says. "In terms of how we process this kind of information, we've all grown up a bit."

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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