Tom Pauken, a candidate for Texas attorney general, was finishing a conversation with a reporter last week about the drug issue, when he got personal. "By the way," he said, "I myself have never used illegal drugs."
That's when the frenzy began. Reporters asked the other candidates if they had ever used illicit drugs. Nope, said two Democrats in somewhat testy fashion. None of your business, replied two Republicans, one of them huffing that the question was "irrelevant."
But Mr. Pauken, a Republican lawyer who helped develop the Reagan administration's Just Say No antidrug campaign, stood firm. Personal behavior, character, and past indiscretions, he insists, are important factors in choosing elected leaders.
"It is relevant," says Pauken, now a Dallas attorney. "If I'm elected, and putting together an antidrug task force, I want to know that any lawyer that's going to be working for me [is] forthright" about their past.
Listen closely, and you'll hear echoes of a debate raging in Washington.
Does it matter?
How important is the moral character of a political leader, and should past behavior influence current elections? Public opinion polls regularly show ambivalence on this issue among voters. But the notion that personal behavior is fair game seems to be here to stay, and it's being welcomed by some political observers as a return to the moral roots of American democracy.
"I'm struck by how much todays debate sounds like pre-Civil War times," says Everett Ladd, director of the Roper Center in Storrs, Conn.
Unlike Jacksonian Democrats, who said that the slave issue should be decided at a local level, "Lincoln said there had to be some effort to connect to morality."
Just as it took President Lincoln's firm leadership to convince Americans of the need to abolish slavery, Dr. Ladd says, it will take "moral education as a continuing process to help people see the connections" between a politician's personal behavior and his political stands.
Indeed, current opinion polls show confusion over how to evaluate public leaders, particularly President Clinton. One poll by U.S. News & World Report found that 66 percent of Americans approve of the job Mr. Clinton is doing, but only 42 percent approve of Clinton himself. A Washington Post survey shows that Clinton's legacy will be based more on sexual allegations than his presidential achievements.
Allegations of adultery are one thing, of course, and youthful experimentation with drugs is quite another. And here in Texas, many political observers say that the drug issue is unlikely to cause many voters to switch their votes.
"Even in Texas, there's been a fair amount of voting that shows Republicans don't like that strategy," says David Prindle, a political science professor at the University of Texas here. "There are trade-offs between whipping up the social conservatives on one hand and turning off the moderate middle on the other."
Overall, most candidates in the attorney general's race view the drug question with some distaste. One Democrat who answered the question - Morris Overstreet said no, he hadn't done drugs - criticized Pauken for raising a silly issue. But another fellow candidate seems to welcome the scrutiny.
"Obviously, the issue of character is important in every campaign," says Jim Mattox, the leading Democratic candidate for attorney general. "I decided that rather than spend a lot of time defending myself, it's easier to answer the question if I've got nothing to hide."
Of course, Mr. Mattox is no stranger to the "drug card" himself. He used it in his 1990 Democratic primary run against incumbent Ann Richards, telling reporters that Governor Richards should answer questions on whether she had struggled with drug or alcohol abuse while in office. The tactic won few votes and quite a bit of bad press, and Mattox ended up losing the race.
"It didn't do me any good," admits Mattox.