WASHINGTON — FOR the past 12 years, Bob Dole has spent his days building consensus as Republican leader in the United States Senate, a job some liken to pushing a wheelbarrow full of bullfrogs.
But Mr. Dole, the Senate majority leader and likely Republican presidential nominee is, by most accounts, skilled at the endeavor.
Quiet but quick-witted, the enigmatic prairie conservative has developed a management style more patient than Machiavellian, more detached than gregarious. He listens closely, persuades gently, and leaves details to staff. He rarely loses his temper, and he usually gets his way.
Now, as Dole watchers shift their view from the stump to the Senate, the question becomes: Will what works in the cloakroom work in the Oval Office? Leading the country may require different skills - such as the ability to rally Americans with oratory - than are needed to lead the Senate. Further, some Americans may view Dole's Senate experience as a mark of Washington insiderism.
To colleagues, at least, Dole commands near-universal respect. "Bob Dole listens to different points of view and tries to satisfy as many as possible," says Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell (R). "He's very good at untying Gordian knots."
Dole's talent, says Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles (R), is a knack for weighing the individual gripes of the few against the greater will of the majority, and crafting compromises. "Bob understands that the more people have a stake in a bill's outcome, the better it will do," Mr. Nickles says.
Since he never mastered writing with his left hand after his right was rendered useless by a war injury, Dole has cultivated his memory and learned to listen keenly. When a senator has a problem, staffers say, Dole corrals that person in his office or on the Senate floor and asks about concerns. Sometimes he incorporates the concerns in a bill. Sometimes he does not. But he always pays attention.
"You're likely to hear a lot less of him than other people in a meeting," says a key staff aide. "Sometimes he'll let people meet and vent, and then he'll do whatever he would have done in the first place."
As the election approaches, it will be Dole's challenge to take positions that resonate with the public and illustrate his differences with President Clinton. But he also needs to ensure that the Senate remains productive and must rely more than ever on his skills as chief cajoler. To that end, Dole has already strong-armed colleagues to put together a deal on the line-item veto and has scheduled another debate on his favorite subject, a balanced budget, for later this spring.
Some Republicans say privately that, during the busy election season, Dole should cede some of his Senate responsibility. They suggest that both the GOP presidential campaign and Senate efficiency would be better served with Dole spending less time in Washington.
Dole's leadership has garnered some resistance, particularly among younger, more ideological Republicans. Last year, Dole's choice for majority whip, Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson (R), lost to Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, who drew support from younger members. And a handful of senators endorsed Dole's rival, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, for the Republican presidential nomination.
He's long on patience
Yet Dole has been gracious to junior members, some would even say indulgent. He has involved them in task forces and study groups, and worked hard to include them in policy decisions, even when they oppose him.
"He's like a father figure to these guys," explains one Senate staffer. "Sometimes they go out and put a dent in the car, or don't do exactly what he says, but he's always patient."
Indeed, few people on Capitol Hill have ever seen Bob Dole take anything personally or lose his temper. "It's not his method to intimidate people or bark at them," the staff member adds. "He doesn't throw his weight around very often."
At times, however, some Republicans wish he would. Last year, when Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) cast the deciding vote against the balanced-budget amendment, a group of younger members demanded that Dole strip Mr. Hatfield of his chairmanship of the Finance Committee. Although the balanced budget is one of Dole's favorite issues, he refused.
To ardent conservatives, the incident demonstrated a problem with Dole's leadership: that he is not aggressive or partisan enough. One high-ranking GOP staffer who requested anonymity complained that instead of recognizing the bill's imminent demise and blaming the Democrats for blocking it, Dole stood by while the media portrayed it as a Republican failure.
Yet if Republicans have gripes about Dole's leadership, they have suppressed them. Senators who have remained neutral or supported other candidates, particularly Mr. Lott, are sporting "Dole for President" lapel pins, and his colleagues have offered standing ovations whenever he enters a room.
Examples of Dole's legislative prowess are numerous. Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) says she was most impressed by Dole's work with her and other moderate senators on a welfare bill that eventually passed with 87 votes.
To Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), Dole's finest legislative moment this year was his decision to support President Clinton's Bosnian troop deployment, despite heavy GOP opposition. "Bob showed tremendous statesmanship," Mr. McCain contends. "He said, 'The troops are going, so let's support our commander in chief,' even though it was no help to him in the primaries."
Using wit as a tool
One of Dole's most potent tools is humor. According to Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi, Dole does not make jokes to ingratiate himself, but delivers quips and one-liners that often provide insight into what he's thinking. Dole "uses his wit as a tool to get his way," he says.
During one government shutdown, for example, which Dole was far more interested in resolving than were the rambunctious House freshmen, he noted that the National Zoo had closed, but Congress was still open.
Even Rep. Newt Gingrich, the loquacious House Speaker, who briefly toyed with his own presidential bid, has deferred to Dole as unquestioned party scion. Asked last week what has changed since he secured the GOP nomination, Dole, flanked by Mr. Gingrich and House majority leader Dick Armey, quipped: "Now I get to stand in the middle."