BOSTON — A new race for the White House begins today.
Bob Dole's dramatic decision to devote his full attention to the presidential campaign - without the encumbrances of his considerable Senate duties - underscores how much trouble the presumed GOP nominee is in. But it also holds out the chance that the Kansas Republican can reinvigorate his campaign.
Despite his three decades of lawmaking in the US Senate, Mr. Dole couldn't turn the chamber into something it isn't: a stage comparable to the White House.
For weeks, the GOP nominee-in-waiting tried to mount a campaign that might more aptly be found in parliamentary Britain - serving as leader of the opposition party and seeking the nation's top job from the legislature.
But the dual effort backfired. Instead of providing Dole with a platform to display his leadership skills, the strategy focused the nation's spotlight on the often-messy business of lawmaking, and left Dole's presidential ambitions vulnerable to the obstructive tactics of the Democrats. Befuddled for weeks by minority filibusters and unable to travel except on weekends, Dole dropped far behind President Clinton in polls and frustrated GOP unity.
At press time Wednesday, Dole was expected to resign from the Senate completely - a stunning move. Such a gesture would allow him not only to focus full-time on his presidential bid, but would mark a dramatic break from his 35-year career as a lawmaker. It would give him a chance to reinvent himself on the campaign trail, something many Republicans believe he should do.
Wearing the hats of a senator and presidential candidate "put him at the heart of the legislative process, and reinforced all the worst stereotypes people have about legislators," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "It forced him to display the bargaining skills of a legislator rather than the executive skills of the president. He probably should not have tried to do both, but he has managed to extricate himself early enough to recapture the lost ground."
While the Rose Garden provides advantages for incumbent presidents seeking a second term, the history of running for president from the Senate does not provide encouragement. In the four previous attempts, two were successful. No majority leader has ever reached the White House
A Dole departure would hold immediate advantages. It would insulate him from direct responsibility for progress - or lack of progress - on Capitol Hill. At a time when a slight majority of the public thinks the GOP led Congress has failed to do what it promised, the break is important both to the party and the candidate. It will allow Dole to formulate a message without needing to give his ideas legislative form.
"You can't win a campaign by committee," says James Pinkerton, a former aide to the Bush administration. "Dole has, in effect, been running his campaign through the committee of the Senate. Now, decisions are a lot more likely to happen with just Dole and a few people."
But by removing himself from Senate duties, Dole has also created a new dynamic on Capitol Hill and within the party. The legislative agenda now sits squarely in the hands of the younger, more conservative wing of the Republican Party. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, is ideologically akin to his former colleague in the House, Speaker Newt Gingrich. And behind the cloak of public appearance, the relationship between Dole and Mr. Lott this year has been strained.
Whether Republicans in Congress follow Dole's lead is a matter the candidate will have less influence over from the stump. "He may retain his visitation rights," Baker says, "but he no longer has true joint custody. His advice to Congress will be that of a senior statesman."
Yet Republicans have made no secret of their desire to see Dole at least step down from his leadership post. Disparaged by the gap in surveys between him nd Clinton, and Dole's inability to show leadership from the Senate, several GOP governors began to worry that the senator would not only fail to win the White House, but hurt the party's prospects for retaining control of Congress and statehouses across the nation.
Now, with their candidate focused on his job as presidential candidate, Republicans hope to restitch the seams rent by a raucous primary season and stalled legislative agenda. "The Republican infrastructure has not been there for us to speak with one message," says Ron Kaufman, a GOP strategist. "Now, with our candidate on the trail, we''l get that structure down, and we'll do just fine.''