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Dole's Management Style: Fit for Oval Office?

By Sam WalkerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 25, 1996


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.

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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.