Dole banks on political skills. Senator emphasizes Midwest roots and his can-do Washington image
Washington — Robert Dole hopes 1988 will be the year of the political insider. Senator Dole, who officially launched his bid for the White House yesterday, is banking on his Washington savvy, his reputation for toughness, and what his supporters call old-fashioned, Kansas-bred common sense to grab the Republican nomination.
But Mr. Dole will be bucking recent history. Ever since 1976, American voters have been partial to outsiders like Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan - men who bashed Washington and the bureaucrats who run it.
With nearly 27 years of experience in Washington, Dole is the ultimate insider, the skilled legislator, the man who knows how Capitol Hill works.
Yesterday, in a subtle jab at Vice-President George Bush, his archrival, Dole told a cheering crowd in his hometown of Russell, Kan.: ``I offer a record, not a r'esum'e.''
Dole's supporters say this is his moment. Public frustration is mounting. Huge federal budget deficits hang over Washington and the American economy like a dark cloud. The stock market has slumped. The Iran-contra scandal reduced confidence in Reagan foreign policy. Partisan bickering divides the capital over Supreme Court nominees.
All this sets the stage for Dole, his aides say. Dole can run as a pro who can get things done.
He is off to a fast start. He has assembled a top-flight team that includes his wife, former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, and former Labor Secretary William Brock. Money is pouring in at the rate of $500,000 a week. And he is a strong second in the polls.
But Dole has one major, perhaps insurmountable, obstacle: Vice-President Bush.
At one time, it was assumed that Mr. Bush would be badly hobbled by President Reagan's problems, especially the Iran-contra affair and the stock market plunge. Yet Bush has survived, and even strengthened his hand in Iowa and other early-voting states.
Dole, meanwhile, has found himself immersed in Washington's struggle over the budget deficit. It's an important role, but it leaves little time for campaigning.
That could hurt. With less than three months until the Iowa caucuses, Dole must begin stripping away Bush's support and narrowing the vice-president's lead in the polls. David Chagall, a Los Angeles-based political analyst, says Dole has been ``impressive'' on the campaign trail but has shown serious failings that could hamper his bid against Bush.
In the recent GOP presidential debate in Houston, for example, Dole ``projected power,'' Mr. Chagall says. Dole's deep voice resonated with authority on affairs inside the Washington Beltway. But that very image ``fortifies Dole's greatest negative,'' Chagall suggests. It makes Dole look like ``a hardened pol,'' with little empathy for the lives of everyday people.
Chagall, like a number of other analysts, says Dole's major task in these remaining months will be to prove that he is an independent thinker who has not been captured by the Washington bureaucracy.
One aspect of that criticism is that Dole has been unsuccessful in creating a vision of America's future, as Mr. Reagan did in 1980. Until recently, Dole's speeches have dealt largely with the nuts and bolts of Congress, not his ideas for the nation in the 1990s. Nor has Dole told voters much about himself.
Some of that is changing. Dole's recent speeches show a softer side. He talks more about himself, about his wounds in World War II that required about three years of hospitalization. He discusses the need to put more compassion into Republican politics, to open up the party to blacks and others on the down side of the American economy. He reminisces about his upbringing in Russell, a town that nurtured him through his painful years after the war.
Dole has already begun to use those Kansas roots to distinguish himself from Bush. Dole's strategists are well aware that Republicans have a historic preference for leaders from small-town, Middle America - leaders like Lincoln, Reagan, Nixon, and Eisenhower. The party usually turns away from men of wealth and power, such as Henry Cabot Lodge, Nelson Rockefeller, and Robert Taft.
Dole told one interviewer: ``There is a little small town in everyone. People yearn for it.''
It's not lost on Dole that Bush comes from an Eastern background of wealth and privilege. He hopes Middle America will notice that, too.