ONCE elevated by the voters to the role of his party's top elected official, Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, quickly found his voice and a new purpose in politics after a long season as the chief backup man for occupants of the White House. Early indications are that Senator Dole will thrive in his new situation.
Dole was quick to signal that he sees it as a dual role of Republican watchdog and chaperon to President-elect Clinton for the four years ahead, leaving the door open for the kind of partisan confrontation Dole excels at but George Bush disliked.
Dole told Senate Republicans at a post-election caucus that their strategy would be to help Clinton when he's right, fight him when he's wrong.
He quickly united Republicans behind him by giving voice to the partisan anger they feel over the release four days before the election of a new indictment of former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger in the Iran-contra case, plus a memo which hurt President Bush at the end of the campaign.
Bush aides claim this stopped his surge in the polls and Dole wants an investigation of the timing of the indictment.
It was a master stroke, given the fact that a lot of conservatives, especially those around Jack Kemp, were writing off Dole and his colleagues as "the last gasp" of the moderate wing of the party.
Dole's decision to take a lead role imitates a similar move by Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine, a mild-mannered but intensely partisan man who played a major but unheralded role in bringing down Bush over the last four years by reviving the memory of the GOP as "the party of the rich."
Senator Mitchell's predecessor as majority leader, West Virginia's Robert Byrd, refused to be a partisan leader. But, though he didn't telegraph his moves, Mitchell had no qualms about partisanship.
To label the GOP as the rich man's party, Mitchell led the filibuster that killed a cut in the capital-gains tax in the fall of 1989. He called it a "tax cut for the rich" and enlisted the support of House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington in setting up a Greek chorus of lawmakers who repeated that slogan each time they looked a TV camera in the eye.
The label stuck and, over the next three years, Mitchell and his allies regularly reenforced it.
So did Bush. Every time the TV cameras zeroed in on Bush sitting in his golf cart dismissing the recession, or waving at reporters from his cigarette boat, Mitchell's "tax cut for the rich" resonated through the electorate's psyche.
What will Dole's Greek chorus chant?
If being the "party of the rich" is the soft underbelly of the GOP, certainly the Democrats' reputation of being the "tax and spend" crowd is their Achilles heel. Dole must have been turning the possibilities over in his mind when he told his fellow Republicans their strategy would be to back Clinton when he wants to do the right thing, fight him when he doesn't. And, as Dole envisions it, offer a Republican alternative.
It fits the script most people are reading from these days - a new president under pressure to come up with the new approaches to old programs he promised, but hampered by the demands of the special interests within his own party for a massive infusion of federal money into new urban programs, into education and AIDS research and, most important of all, into a costly new health-care plan.
Dole will enjoy befriending the beleaguered Clinton if he stands up to his party's special-interest groups. It would be the best of political theater: the understanding adversary who's anxious to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the new, inexperienced president as his own followers tear at him. If Clinton caves in to the interest groups, Dole will have something to say about that, too.
Mitchell didn't try to convert his success as majority leader into tagging a bid for his party's presidential nomination. But Dole has hinted he hasn't ruled it out.