Reporters covering Bob Dole’s quest for the U.S. presidency joke that his campaign suffers from “an excitement gap.” Wits refer to the taci-
turn Senate majority leader as Bob Doleful and Bob Doldrum. Late-night TV comics deliver cutting one-liners about the 72-yearold Republican. (David Letterman: “When
Bob Dole first ran for office it was much easier: there were only 13 colonies.”) Dole himself often plays the straight man, seemingly unable to
even articulate why he should lead the nation. ‘We’ve never had a president named Bob,” he told a bemused Atlanta audience. “So I think it’s about time.” Through the first half of the state-by-state nomination races, Dole’s own voters told pollsters they wished they had a better candidate. But last week, with a seven-state sweep in the so-
called Super Tuesday contests—his second major victory in a week—dull Bob Dole proved that, in the right circumstances, slow and steady can beat ballyhoo in America’s tumultuous politics.
The right circumstances for Dole included the fact that younger and potentially more appealing campaigners had declined
to run, notably retired military chief Colin Powell. Powerful party colleagues—espedally allies of the religious right in a pivotal test in South
Carolina on March 2—rallied to Dole against renegade Republican Pat Buchanan and flat-tax advocate Steve Forbes. Those circumstances, along with Dole’s $50-million campaign purse, carried him beyond February setbacks into a March victory parade that was joined by defectors from Buchanan’s base, the Christian Coalition.
On his way to contests this week in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, and the expected nomination clincher in California on March 26, only Buchanan remains to harass Dole’s advance. By the middle of last week, Forbes had quit and thrown his support to the leader. “I appreciate it very much,” allowed Dole, unexcitedly. “I’m happy to have him as part of our team.”
Capturing a contested nomination before April is a rarity ascribed to the compressed
1996 primary election timetable. It means an early start to the campaign for the Nov. 5 contest between Dole and President Bill Clinton. And it sets up a unique situation whereby their campaigns will color government activity for six months, as the Senate leader and the President wrestle over legislation and executive actions needing Senate
consent Complicating Dole’s future is the need to rebuild Republican party unity before its mid-August convention in San Diego. Dole must avoid affronting Republican factions through his actions as Senate leader or in his choice of vice-presidential candidate. Sure to be looking over Dole’s shoulder is the defiant Buchanan. He has vowed to fight at the convention for party acceptance of his far-right causes. Buchanan has even hinted at leading his followers out of the party. “Somebody’s going to have to represent the folks who have voted for me,” he said, “and if the door is slammed in their face, then I’m going to have to consider what I’m going to do.”
Picking a running mate is an especially sensitive matter for Dole. Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed has signalled that his group’s support depends on the Republican
nominee choosing a partner who, like Dole, opposes abortion. Dole, nevertheless, opened a bid last week for Colin Powell, an abortion-rights supporter. Powell, in announcing last November that he would not run for the presidency, also rejected a vicepresidential role. But recent opinion polling, while placing Clinton ahead of Dole, puts a Dole-Powell pairing narrowly ahead of Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore. And Dole, noting that Powell “has responded whenev-
er his country needed him,” suggested that Powell “would suit up again” if asked to run. Not so, countered Powell adviser Ken Duberstein, saying Powell “meant what he said” in November.
Speculation on an alternative to Powell has ranged among an array of state governors, including California’s Pete Wilson, New Jersey’s Christine Whitman and William Weld of Massachusetts—all supporters of abortion rights. More highly rated are three governors in the Midwest, a key November battleground: Michigan’s John Engler, Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson and Ohio’s George Voinovich. All are Catholics, balancing Methodist Dole. But Dole is deeply in debt to former South Carolina governor Carroll Campbell, a popular anti-abortion Republican with national ambitions who is credited with the turning-point Dole victory in Campbell’s state.
Political scientist Merle Black at Atlanta’s Emory University says Bob Dole is simply not a strong candidate. “He cannot really express a message very well. He’s a closeddoor politician. Close the door and, ‘y°u give me something, I’ll give you something and we’ll make a deal,’ ” Black says. By that measure, Dole may succeed in talking his choice candidate into being his running mate. But the assessments of Black and many others suggest that Dole would be wise to pick someone who can close “the excitement gap,” and perhaps do most of his public talking for him. □
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