Meeting just before the Easter break with the young rebels of the House, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas reminisced about his own glory days as a fist-pounding freshman representative.
In sharing his experiences, Dole's point was to show that even a long-serving member understands the zeal of the first-termers and their impatience with the sometimes slow pace of change in Congress. But Dole has a long way to go toward winning the confidence of the House Republican freshmen, who make up both the idealistic vanguard of the GOP and its most politically vulnerable front line.That initial meeting, held after Dole knocked off his Republican challengers in the early primaries, was meant to open communication between the freshmen and their likely nominee for president, and also to send them back to their districts with a good feeling about campaigning with Dole this fall.
Yet even Dole's most ardent supporters among the large and important GOP freshman class in the House continue to have doubts about whether Dole can lead them into the election with the spirit and message of change that they believe brought them to Congress in the first place.
"I am a strong backer of Dole. If you cut me open, I'd bleed Bob Dole," says freshman Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill. "But people really wonder whether he's up to it or not. There is doubt in the minds of Republicans about whether he can put together the high level of energy and the message to persuade people to vote for him."
And there are few signs yet that Republican hard-liners in the House, including many of the freshmen, are going to set aside their passions in order to avoid the kind of intraparty fights that hang up legislation and prevent Dole from racking up a string of accomplishments to run on.
"I don't see them backing off, presidential candidate or no presidential candidate," said Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., a second-term moderate. "There are those who will not give up the things they want, and that's problematic."
Dole is left in the awkward position of having to win over the hard-liners to a Republican team led by him while at the same time selling himself as the candidate for mainstream Americans, many of whom, according to recent polls, are not willing to go as far, as fast as the House Republicans.
Recent polls have wiped out earlier assumptions that Republicans, after breaking the 40-year Democratic lock on Congress in 1994, would maintain their majority in 1996 no matter the outcome of the presidential contest.
Political analyst Charles Cook asserts in his most recent campaign status report that the battles for control of the House and Senate are now much more competitive than they once were.
Most vulnerable are the 47 House Republican freshmen who won their seats with 55 percent or less of the vote in 1994. Running for re-election for the first time, some of them in what once were solidly Democratic districts, they are the most sensitive to weakness at the top of the ticket. If anyone could use presidential coattails, they could.
"The freshmen in the House are very important to the Bob Dole team, and half of us are on the firing line," said Rep. Andrea Seastrand, R-Calif.
Many of them are frustrated that Dole has not seized on their message of change, which does not come naturally for Dole, who has always been more of a legislative facilitator than a visionary.
"The concern right now is that Democrats are starting to drive the agenda, and there is some frustration that freshmen have with that," said Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., class president.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)