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A NEW DOLE?: POLLS SAY THE WHITE HOUSE RACE IS HIS TO LOSE. BUT DETRACTORS STILL SEE FLAWS.

Bob Dole's first presidential campaign was a joke. In his second bid, he blew a golden opportunity. As he formally begins his candidacy for a third time Monday, the White House is his to lose.

It won't surprise many Republicans if the Senate majority leader does indeed lose it, although history favors the early front-runner for the GOP nomination.Ten months before the voting begins, Dole's lead is so large that most GOP bigwigs are hopping on his bandwagon at the slightest hint of an invitation. In states as diverse as Ohio, New York and South Carolina, almost every major Republican who has gone public has endorsed Dole.

Many see a new Dole.

"I have never seen him as relaxed with himself, and I have known him for 20 years," says Warren Rudman, former senator from New Hampshire.

Those with the new view say Dole is not the sharp-tongued political gut fighter who blamed past wars on Democrats but a man surprised he still has a chance to be president.

"He seems to have the ability to perhaps laugh at himself a little more than he used to," says Frank Fahrenkopf, Republican national chairman when Dole won Iowa's 1988 kickoff caucuses and had a lead in New Hampshire's crucial primary only to lose it and the nomination to George Bush.

Bill Lacy, a top aide in the '88 campaign and chief strategist in this one, says Dole "is a man who thought his last chance for the presidency was gone and then sometime in the last year or so he realized he had one more shot."

The other GOP candidates are Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Richard Lugar of Indiana; California Gov. Pete Wilson, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, Rep. Bob Dornan of California and TV broadcaster Pat Buchanan.

Those not riding the new Dole Express see the same flaws as when he was the vice-presidential nominee in 1976, the last-place candidate in the 1980 primaries (he got just 597 votes in New Hampshire), and the runner-up in '88.

They say he lacks a clear vision for the country. They know he understands Washington. He has been in Congress for 35 years. They aren't so sure he understands America.

Some worry that he is too old, especially in contrast to President Clinton. Dole will be 73 next year, older than Reagan was when he took office. The public knows Dole has survived a brush with prostrate cancer.

Whether or not Dole wins the nomination, today he is Mr. Republican in America's eyes. He easily defeats President Clinton in trial heats among registered voters. In one late February poll, 62 percent of Republicans viewed him favorably, and only 10 percent unfavorably - a phenomenal ratio for a well-known politician.

"The strongest candidate by far is Bob Dole," says Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a neutral Republican. "He is a high-comfort figure to a lot of folks.

"We may well go back a generation for the first time in American history. People see Bill Clinton as an uncertain and rather indecisive figure and Dole is certain and decisive."

GOP pollster Fred Steeper says Dole's support is broad, based on years of service and experience.

"I don't think it is based in any particular issue constituency. That is both his strength and his weakness."

On Dole's side is the fact that the GOP historically turns to the candidate logically next in line for the job. In 1968, it was Richard Nixon. In 1980, it was Ronald Reagan. In 1988, it was George Bush, vice president at the time.

Democrats, are different. In 1976 and 1992, the last two times they won the White House, they picked little-known governors, Jimmy Carter and Clinton, as their candidates.

Dole is a breed apart from House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the new generation of GOP firebrands. Some of Gingrich's "Contract With America" proposals that quickly passed the House have not fared as well in the Senate. The popular balanced-budget amendment went down, and the Senate is likely to dilute House changes in welfare and social policy.

Regardless of Dole's efforts, he is likely to face conservative flak for the results. Moreover, Dole has previously been critical of some efforts by conservatives to cut taxes. A key reason for his 1988 defeat in New Hampshire was his refusal to pledge not to raise taxes.

The country seems confused as to where Dole fits on the ideological spectrum. A poll released last month found 45 percent of Republicans see him as a conservative and 38 percent think he is a moderate.

That may be because Dole has never campaigned on a specific agenda. Attacks against him as "Senator Straddle" have been effective.

Now, he says his strength is his ability to deal with tough problems.

As for complaints from the right that Dole is too quick to compromise, the solidly conservative Abraham, who is neutral in the nomination fight, says that the way someone acts as a legislator doesn't necessarily predict how they'll behave as an executive.

"It may be true that is how some people are assessing Bob Dole, but I don't think it is necessarily the right way to analyze it. The nature of the job is completely different."

Given the clout that conservatives now have in GOP primaries, Dole has been shoring up his conservative credentials. He called for a review, with an eye toward ending, affirmative action programs that he once supported;

He favors eliminating the U.S. Departments of Education, Energy, Commerce and Housing and Urban Development to scale back government.

He has hired key operatives from The Christian Coalition for his campaign.

He promised the National Rifle Association he'll attempt to repeal the ban on assault weapons.

Dole says he'll be the "Tenth Amendment" president, referring to the part of the Constitution that guarantees states' rights from federal encroachment.

Meanwhile, Gramm hammers at Dole from the right, Specter from the left and Wilson and Alexander pound him for his Washington connections. Each is trying to get Republicans to re-examine their affection for Dole.

"We all say his support is a mile wide but only an inch deep," says Steeper. "But a lot of politicians have been successful with support being a mile wide and in inch deep."