LITTLETON, N.H. — FOR Bob Dole it's a simple equation. To win the presidency, he needs to convince voters that he represents ''adult leadership'' - and adult leadership means trying to reach a compromise budget deal with the White House.
It's not a position that sits well with fire-breathing House GOP freshmen. They mutter that after all these years the veteran Senate majority leader is too used to dealmaking. Perhaps so. But as his campaign bus bustles through the snowy New Hampshire night, Sen. Dole seems almost proud of his measured image, and his role in ending the last government shutdown. ''I said, you know, enough is enough,'' he remembers, while dark woods roll by.
''If you want to shut down Commerce, Energy, or Education you got my vote, but this isn't the way to do it. There's not going to be another government shutdown unless Clinton causes it,'' says Dole in a rare interview on the campaign trail.
One year ago, as a newly Republican Congress launched into it's first 100 days, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia was the man of the GOP moment. It was his long march that had wrested control of the House from Democratic hands. It was his Contract With America that was driving the legislative agenda.
In recent weeks, however, Senator Dole seems to have emerged from House Speaker Gingrich's shadow to reassert himself as the leader of his party.
By his own description, Dole has at times been a cohesive force for GOP leaders divided by budget troubles, holding them together when some succumbed to frustration and pessimism. At other times, he has been a kind of grandfather figure, guiding the hard-line freshmen through the art of compromise and consensus.
In a wide-ranging talk, Dole discussed themes he is likely to touch on in his response to President Clinton's State of the Union address, as well as his early thinking about what he would do if given the White House.
The budget remains Washington's primary political problem, however, and it remains high in Dole's thoughts. Frustrated House leaders have continued to lob threats at the White House and now talk of refusing to raise the debt ceiling as a means of forcing Clinton concessions. Still, Dole sees room for compromise.
The key, he says, is curbing the growth of entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare. According to Dole, GOP negotiators have told Clinton that as long as he reaches a set figure of total savings for entitlements, they're willing to be flexible about how much is taking out of each specific program.
''We told the president - I don't think there's a precise number - if he could reach X dollars on any of those.... if he didn't want to come closer on Medicare to take it out of welfare, whatever, Medicaid - that we'd be prepared to work out the rest of it because if we don't address entitlements, all we've done is punt and hope somebody else will catch it after we're gone,'' says Dole.
The budget battle has given Dole an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership ability, and has provided ample publicity to fuel his presidential campaign. At the same time, the standoff presents Dole with more than a few pitfalls.
Many voters now view the budget talks as a test: If Dole fails to get a deal, he'll hurt his image as an effective leader. The negotiations have also keep Dole bogged down in Washington while rivals for the nomination campaign against him in Iowa and New Hampshire.
He admits to some irritation: ''It's a little frustrating, you've got somebody like Gramm who hasn't been in Washington much in the last six months, out smacking at me while I'm stuck there when I could be out campaigning.''
''But that makes him happy, I guess,'' says Dole of his Senate colleague and campaign trail foe.
As for what he'd do if elected, Dole sticks with the budget: ''We're going to pursue a balanced budget, a seven-year balanced budget, send a constitutional amendment to Congress, and ask them to send it out to the states.''
Last weekend was the first time Dole has been able to campaign in earnest this year. Foul weather forced him to miss two events he had scheduled, and his campaign scrambled to link him by telephone with supporters who had gathered to hear him speak.
In both his stump speeches and in an interview, he points to a long list of endorsements as evidence of the strength he would have to lead from the White House. With friends on Capitol Hill and more than two-dozen statehouses in GOP hands, he says, he'd be able to shepherd the GOP revolution to completion.
''The president has a lot of power, particularly if he has a lot of friends in Congress,'' he says. ''I think my judgment is pretty good when dealing with members. I've never, with the exception of one time, lost my cool.'' And that, he says, was when a member recently endorsed rival Republican presidential hopeful Steve Forbes.