WASHINGTON — The campaign for the White House is beginning to look more like a contest between two men rather than a clash between the institutions they serve.
In the two weeks since Bob Dole announced he would leave the Senate, he and President Clinton have squared off on issues ranging from abortion to missile defense. In each case, attention is turning more toward what sets these two opponents apart rather than how Republicans and Democrats lock horns over legislation in Congress.
For the most part, Republicans couldn't be more relieved by the change. After falling 20 points behind in opinion polls and fumbling for a message, Mr. Dole and his campaign seem revived. He lunches with voters and cheers at basketball games. He leaves Washington as often as a commuter plane. And he's reportedly making peace with his worst enemy, the speech teleprompter.
Still, if Dole is looking more spirited on the campaign trail, he faces a problem that has many a Republican frustrated: What to do about Mr. Clinton's talent for "stealing" GOP issues. Whether it's welfare, crime, or deficit reduction, the president seems eager to agree with Dole before the challenger even attempts to paint their differences. How long Clinton can exploit this strategy is uncertain. How Dole can counter it is even less clear.
"This is a terrible problem for the Republican Party," says David Tell, opinion editor at the conservative Weekly Standard magazine. "Bill Clinton is determined to take all of Dole's explanatory devices away from him in advance, and leave only what makes Republicans look like kooks. This is not your classic Oxford-Union debate. It's annoying."
Between now and the August conventions, the Dole campaign plans to focus on six main issues: crime, welfare reform, smaller government, fewer taxes, affirmative action, and opposition to gay marriage. Striking advantageous differences with Clinton may prove difficult. There is no disagreement, for instance, on gay marriage: Clinton has vowed to sign GOP legislation banning such unions.
The administration, meanwhile, claims to have cut the size of the federal government by 11 percent since 1993, with the fewest civilian employees since John Kennedy was president.
On other issues, the differences lie in the details, and voters may not sit still long enough to read the fine print. Consider welfare. Just three days before Dole traveled to Wisconsin last week to deliver a major campaign on the speech in a state where GOP reforms are a national showcase, Clinton upstaged his rival by essentially endorsing the program. The list of what both candidates support is longer than what they disagree over: time limits, work requirements, family caps, and drug testing for recipients.
By the time Dole delivered his speech advocating drug testing for recipients, his campaign was already defending him, spinning arguments about how the GOP candidate disagrees with the president over funding levels and benefits to "illegal noncitizens." Clinton's team, meanwhile, noting that the president granted states waivers from federal welfare statutes to implement drug testing, issued a statement saying it was "gratified that Senator Dole has joined us."
Dole is now in California, where he will spell out his differences with Clinton over crime policy. The two differ on specifics, but both parties expect crime to be a potent issue in '96, and both are running to the right to appear tougher. Clinton, for example, supports the "three-strikes" provision eliminating parole for those convicted of three violent crimes. Dole also would eliminate parole for violent criminals.
The key to beating Clinton, say some GOP strategists, isn't so much policy differences as character. The issues are important, they say, but if Clinton continues to try to close the gap with Dole, voters need to ask themselves whom they trust more to turn campaign promises into administration policy.
"I think the key is to develop issues based on character, leadership, and experience," says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a Dole adviser.
Others say it's a matter of talking. If Dole continues to refine and spread his message, says GOP strategist Eddie Mahe, it will be only a matter of time before Clinton stumbles on his own policy contradictions. The president's recovery during the past year, he says, was based more on GOP mistakes than Clinton's policies.
"Take the budget," Mr. Mahe says, referring to last winter's standoff, when partisan bickering led to three government closures and boosted Clinton's standing with the public. "That was pure Republican stupidity. All Clinton did was say, 'There's the gangplank.' And we said, 'OK, fine.' They had the good sense not to get in the way as we walked off it.
"But ultimately, when you attempt the level of duplicity that Bill Clinton is attempting, it blows up," Mahe says. "Dole doesn't need any grand moves. He needs to talk about taxes, less spending, cutting government - the core Republican values. He needs to pound on them."