Bob Dole resigned from the Senate that he loved because Americans don't elect congressional leaders president and he needs to get their attention to jump-start his candidacy.
Dole had little to lose on several counts.He's 15-20 points behind President Clinton in the polls, and his initial strategy of waging a "battle of Pennsylvania Avenue" with Clinton over legislation wasn't working.
Moreover, if he did lose the election, he was likely to face a tough re-election fight as majority leader against younger, more conservative members of his own party.
Democrats like Rep. Sam Gibbons of Florida said Dole "looks pretty desperate" giving up his Senate seat, and many echoed Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., who said "to most of the public he will still be Senator Dole" regardless of any desire to obscure that image.
Predictably, Republicans called Dole's emotional decision to end his congressional career, which spanned half his 72 years, "a crystal-clear indication of his dedication and commitment to his campaign for the presidency," as New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman put it.
Essentially, Dole's decision was based on two imperatives:
- No sitting congressional leader has been elected president in more than a century. Dole's firm imprint in the public mind as a long-time congressional insider wasn't helping his candidacy. The GOP needed to soften his image as a Washington deal-maker more a part of the establishment than Clinton.
Asked if that was one of the motivations for Dole's resignation, Tom Korogolos, a senior White House aide in several GOP administrations and a long-time Dole adviser, said, "You bet. His message all got funneled through a gateway called the Senate," and that was hurting his candidacy.
"It frees him to be speaking out on a broader agenda," explained Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kansas.
- The desire to have voters take a second look at Dole and replace their existing image of him with that of a war hero from a hard-scrabble background who represents core American values.
GOP focus groups are finding that most voters know little of Dole's background and react more positively to him when they do.
"They are going to have a lot more chance to meet him now," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. "That is very important. When you meet Bob Dole and learn his life story and experience and the integrity and courage of the man, you have a very different reaction to him than to a sound bite.
"People all over America tonight are going to be saying, `You talk about laying it on the line and doing it for real, it doesn't get much better than this,"' Gingrich said.
Dole's decision to resign from the Senate surprised virtually all of Washington, including Clinton and Gingrich.
One likely problem for Dole will be how to pay for what Republican officials said would be full-time campaigning. Under federal law, Dole's campaign has only an estimated $1 million that it is allowed to spend until the August convention.
GOP officials said Dole will spend most of his time at Republican events, thus allowing party funds to pay the tab. Democratic officials, however, promised to monitor his travels and were certain to raise questions.
The biggest question for Dole, however, is whether voters will actually take another look at him and revise their thinking.
"It's ridiculous. Bob Dole retiring from the Senate and running as an outsider would be like Magic Johnson going around saying he is not a basketball player," argued Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "If there is anything that people know about Bob Dole, it is that he is the Senate Republican leader. It is a little too late to escape 30 years of history."
Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour, responded, "This is not going to change Bob Dole's image, but instead of him being framed by his duties here, he will have time to go to the people and tell his story."