WASHINGTON — IF a president can keep his job and run for reelection, why shouldn't a Senate majority leader be able to?
That's the response Sen. Bob Dole, the GOP presidential nominee-in-waiting, gives when asked whether he ever considered relinquishing his Senate post to run full-time for the White House. After all, he coasted through the primaries with little trouble, confounding conventional wisdom about the pitfalls of managing the Senate from the campaign trail.
Mr. Dole's campaign advisers may now wish their candidate had decided otherwise. As Congress becomes the focus in the contest between Dole and President Clinton, the difficulties of waging a Rotunda strategy - something no modern majority leader has attempted - seem as complex as balancing the federal budget.
Mired in the messy work of lawmaking, Dole is forced to cobble together cloakroom deals and bipartisan coalitions while Mr. Clinton trots in and out of Washington, cleaning rivers, conducting foreign policy, and now and then waving his veto pen.
"Most count Bob Dole as a legislative genius, a man who knows the terrain of Capitol Hill like Kit Carson knew the Rocky Mountains," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "That he could be at the mercy of the Democrats' filibusters is nothing short of astonishing."
Several key pieces of legislation, ranging from term limits to health care to government spending, have shown recently how both the institutions of government and increasing disunity within the GOP place Dole at a disadvantage.
The biggest obstacle between Dole and his presidential ambitions may be Congress itself. It may seem an unfair equation. The best Dole can do, as he tries to build a legislative record to run on, is share credit with the White House when things get done. For things not done, he is first in line for blame, and there are pitfalls on both sides of the Rotunda.
Consider the Senate. Though he controls its ebb and flow, Dole is vulnerable to its devices. On Tuesday, he tried to bring term limits, a key provision of the House GOP's Contract With America, to a floor vote. Dole, a senator for 36 years, has never shown more than tepid support for the idea. It remains popular among many voters, however, including supporters of Ross Perot.
The vote itself would have been a political gesture with little consequence. The House already defeated the provision last year. But Dole figured that the vote would allow the public to record where individual senators stood on the issue, and his effort to bring it to the floor would curry favor among voters. The bill's demise, however, illustrates Dole tough position: Will the public blame Democrats for blocking the vote by filibuster, or Dole for not providing enough leadership to break the opposition?
Two other bills illustrate the same problem. Last week, Dole suffered embarrassment when he attempt to attach a major GOP initiative to a bipartisan health-care bill and was defeated. The Senate rejected Dole's amendment creating medical savings accounts, an alternative to Medicare, to a bill making health insurance portable when workers change jobs.
Now the Senate majority leader faces similar resistance in attaching another GOP jewel to the Democrats' bill raising the minimum wage. Dole resisted the wage bill for weeks, but has backed down in the face of its wide popularity. He has vowed, however, to include an amendment creating a $500-per-child tax credit. It's a risky move. Democrats know how much Republicans desire that provision, and how much it could embarrass Dole if they keep him from passing it.
"Dole now operates in more than the usual fishbowl," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University. "Normally, when a majority leader attaches a provision to a bill and it fails, it's a little item inside a newspaper. Now that failure competes for headlines with the bill itself."
The House, meanwhile, presents new problems for Dole. As the top party figure on the Hill, he is more affected by what the House does, even though he has no direct control over it. This may become apparent as a House committee holds hearings on the constitutionality of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision making abortion legal. Dole wants to avoid a clash over the issue in the election - especially since he runs far behind Clinton among women. At the very least, the House hearings keep the issue viable.
Another obstacle is party unity. Following the advice of his mentor, Richard Nixon, Dole dashed to the right during the primaries to capture the nomination and is now moving back toward the center for the general election. That's a direction the Republican rank and file may not follow. Many GOP members, especially those elected in more recent years, are ardent conservatives. The closer election draws, the more likely it becomes that those members will tend their roots.
Or, as some Republicans have shown, they may pull Dole further toward the middle than he was willing to go.