In his last run for the White House, the stoic Kansan is counting on support from voters who want loyalty and solidity, not flash
HANOVER, N.H. — It stung deeply, the loss in 1988. Maybe it still does now and then.
But Bob Dole wouldn't let a grudge obscure the work ahead. That's not his way.
George Bush noticed. Five years after Mr. Bush won that bruising New Hampshire primary, Senator Dole was there for his erstwhile rival. He stood at the top of the podium on a cold day in January, waiting to escort George and Barbara from their final official act as president and first lady.
''Just as George descended the steps to go down to the chopper,'' Dole says, recalling the 1993 Inaugural, ''he turned to me and said, 'I want to say thank you again for your loyalty. You'll never know how much it meant to me.' And I hear it now from his sons: I stuck with the president.''
There's an unspoken implication as Dole tells the story aboard a campaign bus winding down a dark, wooded New Hampshire road: Now it's time for this loyalty to reap its reward. Dole has sought the presidency for 20 years, and this is likely his last shot at the office.
Nestled in the warmth of Bush's parting words lies the essence of Dole's campaign message - the nation needs solidity, not flash. It needs a standup guy in the White House, someone to stoically get things done.
That's always been Dole's role. He ran the football for Kansas University. He scrambled up Hill 913 ahead of his platoon in World War II, straight at the Germans. For President Reagan, he hammered out Social Security reforms. No matter what task, or how he felt about it, Dole shouldered the weight, took care of business.
When he's on the stump, Dole says, ''We're going to dust off the 10th Amendment.'' That's about as much vision as he offers. The 28-word conclusion to the Bill of Rights states that whatever powers the Constitution does not allocate to the federal government belong ''to the states, respectively, or to the people.''
Dole's rivals fault him for lacking a grander statement - for lacking, as Bush put it, ''the vision thing.'' Maybe that's why outsider Steve Forbes suddenly poses such a serious threat in the race for the nomination.
But Dole seems almost baffled by such criticism. The GOP, he believes, has plenty of ideas: balance the budget, reform welfare, turn power back to the states. As the recent breakdown in budget talks demonstrates, however, grand intentions don't produce easy change. The party doesn't lack ideas. The country just needs a steady hand to guide it through.
''Gotta have leadership,'' the senator says. ''Adult leadership.''
If that sounds like a soft generational dig at the baby boomer in the White House, it's meant to. Dole is among the Americans whose first memories were dust and Depression. They grew up hard, faced down fascism, and outlasted communism. They believe they are now the ones to set things right at home.
''He feels he has one last mission to perform,'' says Adolph Reisig, a childhood friend who helped Dole recover from his war wounds. ''It has a lot to do with our generation. The country is in real dire need of a sensible, down-to-earth person. He wants to hand our kids something they can live with. Wipe the slate clean. He's offering his services. That chance won't come along again.''
It's different this time
For 50 years it's simply been his ''problem.'' He never wanted to talk about it much. He mastered his motions so they appear unforced. To the casual observer, his useless right arm goes almost unnoticed.
That's the way he's always wanted it. Dole got the ''problem'' in service to his country. Sacrifice, to him, isn't something you complain about. Not if you're the child of Bina Dole.
Once, during the worst of the Depression, Bina abruptly moved the whole family down into the basement of their little brick house on Maple Street - all six of them - so they could rent the main floor to an oil family. Oil was the only thing that brought money to Russell, Kan., in those days.
Everyone worked. Bob and his brother Kenny milked cows before school. Most evenings they'd man the grain elevator so Doran, their father, could run home for a quick dinner. Anything to squeeze a few extra pennies. There was no complaining.
The first three times Dole ran for national office, he didn't talk much about his war wound, the damage left by an explosive bullet that caught his shoulder in the last weeks of World War II. This time, however, the wound has become a part of the Dole tableau. It reinforces his image as a self-sacrificing patriot, one who knows the meaning of hard work, sacrifice, family.
The image is offered as a softer face to the visage he has cut in some previous campaigns. Dole's words can whip as hard as any wind on the Kansas prairie. In 1988, he carped at Bush to ''stop lying about my record'' - one of the infamous lines of the campaign.
Not this time, though. Not even Mr. Forbes's incessant negative ads have drawn the full Dole invective.
Is compromise an art or a weakness?
It might seem like an odd time for an Eisenhower pragmatist to be making his best run at the Republican nomination. In the take-no-prisoners era of Newt Gingrich conservatism, compromise is seen by many Republicans more as a weakness than a political art.
Yet Dole is counting on the irony. Nothing gets done in Washington without compromise. It's easy to draw a line in the sand. But he believes it takes a leader to know how to find the advantage.
''I admire the freshmen,'' Dole says of the class of tough, young GOP lawmakers in the House. ''I admire their vitality and their commitment. But I also think, you know, Newt's lost a lot of votes over there - quite a few votes - over differences with the freshman class.
''I think you learn a lot with experience. You learn what your limits are, how far you can go.''
Of course, there are two sides to this flexibility. Dole hasn't lasted 35 years in Washington without adapting. His tenor isn't the only thing he's refined for this campaign.
Back in 1988, Dole refused to sign New Hampshire's no-new-taxes pledge. It was a stand consistent with his philosophy. Cutting the deficit was more important to Dole. But Granite Staters don't fool around on taxes, and Dole was trounced. It may have cost him the nomination. This time, he took the pledge.
Tax reform is another issue. It was gaining momentum in Congress even before Forbes rode the flat tax to fame. Last June, Dole and House Speaker Gingrich established a commission, with former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp at the top, to study various ways to replace the income tax.
Not many days after the kickoff press conference, however, the Dole campaign pulled Mr. Kemp aside. As one campaign insider relates the story, Kemp was urged only to identify broad principles of tax reform, rather than produce a specific plan. It was always Dole's intention to endorse the commission report. But he didn't want to get pinned down by specific rates or deductions.
When Kemp reported the commission's study last month, Dole got his wish. No numbers, just principles for a ''flatter, fairer, simpler tax code.''
If it was a calculated move by a skilled politician, it wasn't necessarily inconsistent with his principles. Tax reform is too big, too complicated, to wrap up in a campaign promise. On the stump, Dole says the flat-tax plans put forward by GOP rivals Forbes and Texas Sen. Phil Gramm are ''risky ideas.''
In previous presidential runs, Dole might have hit harder. But either way, the characterization is bedrock Dole. The flat tax is based on supply-side theory, and Dole never trusted those who argued that tax cuts could spur enough economic growth to eliminate the budget deficit.
''Dole has always been a Nixon Republican,'' says John Pitney, a political scientist at the Claremont McKenna College in California. ''He is a fellow traveler of conservatives, but has never been a card-carrying member of the conservative movement.''
Still, many of Dole's positions reflect the pragmatic, small-town conservatism he grew up with. He believes abortion should be illegal except when a mother's life is in danger or in case of rape or incest. He would end federal welfare programs and give the money to the states.
On immigration, he favors cutting off benefits to illegals. He would slow legal immigration. Dole also supports a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, and would repeal the ban on assault weapons. He would abolish the US Department of Education. He backs giving parents vouchers to help pay for private, religious, or participating public schools of their choice.
''I mean, way back in 1984, I've always been out there on the deficit, ahead of a lot of these people,'' he says, defending himself against charges of flip-flopping on the issues. ''I was talking about block grants for welfare in 1979. I'm the one who has long been for indexing the tax code [for inflation], which would benefit working people. We haven't been sitting there just waiting for someone to turn the lights on.''
The shape of a Dole White House
The question doesn't seem to make much sense to him: What would be his first move in the White House? Dole thinks about it for a minute while he investigates a scoop of potato salad for signs of onion. He doesn't like onions.
''I think there are quite a lot of things I would want to do,'' he finally says. Then he picks a standard GOP issue. ''Like on affirmative action: I wouldn't want to repeal the entire thing. We have to keep the original part, the part about discrimination. Nobody likes discrimination.
''But I must say I've focused less on that. I'm trying to get the nomination.''
Outside, a fresh wet snow falls, slowing the bus to a careful pace. It winds through the New Hampshire night, and, Dole hopes, toward the Oval Office.