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REDIRECTING THE SPOTLIGHT IS NO EASY JOB

It's hard to say who has enjoyed the three months of Republican congressional control less, Democrats or Senate Republican leader Bob Dole.

House Republicans under Speaker Newt Gingrich have seized the reigns of power and pushed through almost every element of their 10-point Contract With America.The momentum in the House, coupled with Gingrich's charisma, has dimmed the spotlight on the Senate and its leader, flaring only, it often seems, when things go awry.

The Senate has passed just three relatively non-controversial items of the contract so far, and rejected a fourth, the balanced-budget amendment, by one vote.

The "crown jewel" of the GOP contract - tax cuts - is likely to falter in the Senate in favor of deficit reduction, and other complex issues are months away from debate on the Senate floor.

"We haven't done any heavy lifting over here yet," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, Dole's sharpest rival among four senators competing for the GOP presidential nomination next year.

Dole frets about being blamed for the Senate's slothful pace and talks wistfully about "catching up with the House" by late summer.

Yet he also sometimes talks disparagingly about "their contract" and makes it clear the Senate version of most legislation will be different from the House bill in content and timing:

- "I'm not certain our tax cuts will be as much as the House sends over."

- "We favor welfare reform, but there will probably be some differences from what the House sent over. We may make some provisions tougher."

- "Term limits? We'll get to those in six months, maybe three months, before October."

Now that Dole is a presidential candidate, most observers believe he's trying to shed his image as a fiercely partisan Washington insider and move closer to elder Republican statesman in comparison with the vitriolic Gingrich.

On the stump, Dole still rails against "a federal government that's more and more in your business" and proposes eliminating the departments of "Energy, Education and Housing and Urban Development, for starters."

But he has spent almost half his life in Congress, and he still sees the government as a tool for positive change almost as often as an obstacle.

Dole still plots legislative strategy as a conventional general, rather than as a guerrilla or revolutionary.

He slogged ahead on the balanced-budget debate, colleagues said, because he believed the fight could be won, not because of its symbolic value. He hasn't given up.

On the other hand, senators close to Dole say he is loath to tackle term limits just to establish a record to flog recalcitrant Democrats (and Republicans) or to schedule a vote on school prayer or gays in the military just to satisfy a key GOP constituency.

Ultimately, though, Dole needs the Senate to produce so he can demonstrate leadership - to Senate Republican colleagues, many of them restive former House members, to GOP delegates and primary voters, and to the nation at large.

His "to-do" list for this year is only slightly less ambitious than Gingrich's: a budget that sets the course for balance by 2002; product liability and legal reform; welfare reform; telecommunications overhaul; new crime legislation; updates of environmental laws and agricultural programs; overhaul of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and modest steps toward health-insurance reform.

"My view is that we can reduce taxes, capital gains, family credit, there's a lot of ways we can do those," Dole said. "I think we ought to move ahead, but we have to pay for everything we do.

"The hard part is not the balanced-budget amendment or making the speeches," he added. "It's casting the votes for the cuts."