Candidates for national office know their past mistakes are likely to wind up on public display, flaunted like trophies by opponents who insist personal conduct is fair game in an election season. This happened last month to U.S. Senator Roger W. Jepsen (R-Iowa) when stories about his 1977 visit to an unsavory “health club” began to circulate.

Jepsen, a conservative who has pushed for anti-abortion and family protection legislation, used the occasion to explain how his personal commitment to Christ—made later in 1977—has changed his life. He appears to have made a successful political rebound, with many Iowa newspapers defending him editorially and a strong show of support from his fellow senators in Washington.

“We have made no secret that our lives and our marriage have gone through some rocky times,” said Jepsen of himself and his wife, Dee. “We have made no secret that we have made some real mistakes in our personal lives. We’ve made that a matter of public record, hoping it would help others; and frankly, as a testimony to the healing, forgiving, and transforming effect of a living and merciful God.”

The race for Jepsen’s Senate seat, which he wrested from liberal Dick Clark in 1978, is heating up with unusual intensity over social issues. Independent anti-abortion activists in Iowa launched a highly emotional appeal for support for Jepsen using a mascot called Teddy Tomorrow. A person dressed in a teddy bear costume shows up at rallies for Jepsen’s Democratic opponent, Tom Harkin, carrying signs protesting Harkin’s opposition to a ban on abortion. A fundraising slogan used by the group says “15 million babies never hugged a teddy bear,” referring to the number of abortions performed in the United States since 1973. In retaliation, Harkins campaign staff established a public affairs committee to raise funds by impugning the motives of right-to-life groups and tying them to Jepsen’s campaign effort.

Because Jepsen appeals to Iowa conservatives on a pro-moral platform, it seemed especially damaging when information about the health club visit spread. Jepsen has acknowledged that he joined a club offering “nude modeling, nude encounters, and nude rap sessions.” He said he applied for membership in a moment of “weakness” and “stupidity,” and never participated in the club’s activities.

In a prepared statement, Jepsen termed the disclosure “an organized, deliberate attempt at character assassination.” He insists he and his wife, a former Reagan appointee to the White House public liaison staff, have made no secret of their past.

“It is fairly common knowledge that Dee and I are what is frequently described as born-again Christians. Dee came to that personal commitment to Christ early in 1970. I did in late 1977,” he said. “The Lord met us at points of need in our lives. Politics, which used to be a dividing force in our lives, has become a uniting one.

“Perhaps all of this negative activity is a blessing in disguise, for it has brought us to the position we are in today—sharing our good news with those who aren’t aware of it yet.”

At a private luncheon for Republican senators, Jepsen received enthusiastic applause when he apologized for the incident. Staff aides say numerous senators have called to offer personal support. In Iowa, the Des Moines Register expressed the sentiment that appears to be holding sway with voters: “His lapse in judgment should be forgiven, and the campaign for his Senate seat should be focused on the real issues.”

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