Even to friends, it seems like Bob Dole just can't win
Even to friends, it seems like Bob Dole just can't win
There are bad times, really bad times, and times so bad that even your friends don’t want to know you. Bob Dole, the hapless Republican presidential contender, is having one of those times. Running a campaign that seems to have tapped into an inexhaustible supply of bad luck, he is finding that many of those who should be turning out to help him are suddenly finding that they have urgent business elsewhere. Case in point: in the key battleground state of Ohio, Republican Gov. George Voinovich has conspicuously failed to turn up at a Dole campaign event since mid-July. Voinovich is planning a run for the Senate in 1998, and any association with a sinking presidential candidate can do him no good. The governor, commented the Cincinnati Enquirer last week, “is a practical politician who reads the bottom line first. And this time, the bottom line says it’s probably not a good idea to do the Siamese-twin thing with Mr. Dole.”
The Dole campaign has sunk so low, in fact, that another of his boosters, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, offered what may be the most unwelcome expression of support possible for a presidential hopeful. The Republican is so far behind, Robertson told a gathering of 5,000 conservative Christians in Washington, that “in my personal opinion there’s got to be a miracle from
Almighty God to pull it out.” The gloom over Dole’s campaign was so marked that when the candidate took a pratfall from a stage in Chico, Calif., last week and ended up sprawled on his back, the symbolism was as poignant and painful as the agonized expression on his face. Dole fell from the stage when a railing he was leaning on gave way, and tumbled four feet to the ground. Never mind that he sprang up gamely with a smile and a ready joke, showing that even at age 73 he has remarkable powers of recovery. The damage was done.
The result is that most political professionals have all but written off the presidential race six weeks before voting day on Nov. 5. To be sure, they invoke the usual caveats: voters are unpredictable, anything can happen. One opinion poll last week put Dole only eight points behind Clinton, but most surveys show him trailing by anywhere between 12 and 20 points, a gap that has never been closed so near to the election. “Can he turn it around? It’s not impossible—but it’s unprecedented and unlikely,” says analyst William Schneider of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. As a result, the focus has shifted to the fight for control of Congress. Clinton’s lead seems so commanding that Democrats believe it could help them recapture control of the House of Representatives—and possibly even the Senate—from the Republicans.
CLINTON: THE LADIES’ MAN
We cannot promise you that women will vote as a unit when they are enfranchised. . . . They will divide upon all political questions, as do intelligent, educated men.
—Susan B. Anthony, 1884
The legendary U.S. suffragist might well want to reconsider her words if she contemplated the voting intentions of American women in 1996. What is striking about how they are approaching the choice between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole is precisely how different their outlook is from men’s. If males alone voted, the presidential race would be neck and neck: men, opinion polls show, are about evenly split between the Democrat and the Republican. But women favor Clinton over Dole by a commanding margin—15 to 20 percentage points in most surveys. The socalled gender gap has grown so wide that political analysts have coined a new term for it: the gender gulf.
The gap first opened in 1980, when American men swung right to support Ronald Rea-
gan. Then and in succeeding elections, women continued to favor Democrats, generally by a margin of 5 to 7 points—a significant gap in a country where a 10-point victory over an opponent is considered a landslide. But Dole’s problem with women is on a completely different scale. For some observers, there is a one-word explanation: abortion. The Repub-
licans’ hardline stand against abortion rights alienates many women, including the professional suburban women who support the party’s conservative stance on many other issues. But it goes deeper than that. Surveys show that women—even those who identify themselves as Republicans—are much more concerned than men about social issues such as education, health care and safeguarding the environment. “They are the bell-ringing issues with women, and Dole is losing women big time,” notes Doug Bailey, publisher of a widely read political newsletter called The Hotline.
Female voters are much more fearful than men about spending cuts ordered by the radical right Republican Congress. And they are responding in record numbers to Clinton’s promise to safeguard social programs while reducing the deficit. At the same time, the President has been successful in tailoring his message to women’s priorities. Instead of grand new plans, he is running on a platform that stresses modest, concrete steps that appeal to female voters, such as curbing tobacco advertising aimed at children and making sure that new mothers can stay in hospital for more than 48 hours after giving birth. Recent American elections may have turned on the anger of white males. But this fall’s campaign seems to hinge largely on the concerns of women.
Even many Republicans appear to be operating on that assumption. Dole responded to that feeling on Sept. 11, when he went to the Capitol in Washington to meet with Republicans in Congress facing re-election in November, and reassure what he called the “faint-hearted people” among them. He collected a bouquet of supportive statements, but outside Washington more and more candidates were distancing themselves from him. Some Republicans, like Ohio’s Voinovich, avoid appearing with him. Others take different approaches: Representative David Funderburk of North Carolina, for example, hands out campaign literature featuring a photograph of him, not with Dole, but with the ever-popular Ronald Reagan, who appointed Funderburk the U.S. ambassador to Romania.
Some Republican congressmen have even taken to stressing their ties to Clinton himself, who they excoriated as recently as 1994 as a high-spending, tax-loving liberal. In a remarkable reversal, they now stress how the Republican Congress has worked with the President in recent months to pass key legislation such as welfare reform. And instead of echoing Dole’s theme that the U.S. economy is failing to deliver a higher standard of living for most Americans, many Republican congressmen have taken up Clinton’s argument that the economy is humming along very nicely, thank you. They know that the widespread public anger of recent years has faded; they hope to associate themselves with the generally upbeat national mood—and with a popular President. “No one is running away from Bob Dole,” Republican Congressman Tom Campbell of California said loyally in an interview. “But there are a lot of people stressing their own records, what they’ve accomplished as individuals.”
Analyst Schneider puts it another way. “The Republicans are trying to revive a traditional principle: that all politics is local,” he says. “They defied that in 1994; they turned the congressional race into a national referendum on Bill Clinton, and it served them well. This year they’re saying it’s not a referendum on Bob Dole, or Bill Clin-
ton—it’s me and my record. We’ll see if they can undo what they did in ’94.”
In fact, control of the House of Representatives could easily end up with either party. The Republicans won it in 1994 on a wave of antiClinton feeling, and now have a majority of 235 seats to 198. The Democrats must win 19 seats back to regain control and end the controversial reign of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But that will not be easy: American voters often engage in ticketsplitting—supporting one party’s presidential candidate but backing another party for Congress. While the Senate is hard to predict, most surveys show voters giving Republican candidates a slight edge in the House races.
Dole, however, must still fight an uphill battle. His strategists say he is looking forward to a planned series of debates with Clinton to give him a boost. Last week, the commission that organizes the sessions ruled that Reform Party candidate Ross Perot, whose support is running at about 5 to 7 per cent in most polls, should not take part in the debates, the first of which is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 6. That pleased the Dole camp, which had sought a one-on-one matchup with Clinton.
Still, it is difficult to see how that could turn the presidential race around. The contrast in fortunes between the two campaigns has been too telling. On the day that Dole was reassuring the “fainthearted” among his own troops, Clinton was scooping up $5.5 million at a glitzy Hollywood fund-raiser featuring the likes of Sharon Stone and Barbra Streisand. And on the day that Dole took his embarrassing tumble, the President was posing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, issuing an order to protect 1.7 million acres of land from development, and talking eloquently of “God’s handiwork.” By all accounts, Dole remains upbeat, even chipper, as he endures his time of troubles. The question is whether that reflects the confidence of a candidate who still thinks he can win, or the inner peace of a man resigned to his fate. □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.