SAN DIEGO — Twenty years after his name first appeared on convention-hall placards as a vice presidential candidate, Bob Dole returns to the podium tonight to deliver the most important speech of his life. This time, his name tops the ticket.
As he accepts the GOP nomination that long eluded him, Dole completes a dramatic attempt this week to invigorate his underdog bid for the White House. His address will either be the preface to an inauguration or the epilogue to a life of public service.
In the past 10 days, Dole has seized the campaign agenda with an ambitious plan to grow the economy and buoyed his party by naming Jack Kemp as his running mate. Now he must do the one thing he has always found most difficult: reveal Bob Dole to the public.
Few politicians have trodden a longer trail to their party's nomination. For nearly three decades Mr. Dole has wandered from the bridges of Madison County to the White Mountain maples of Franconia, N.H. When he wasn't waging one of his four attempts at national office, he was stumping on behalf of Republican colleagues and candidates.
But for all his traveling, and despite a distinguished 35-year career in Congress, Dole is still relatively unknown to many voters. What little they do know about him, furthermore, includes some negative residues: A few, high-profile outbursts have shaped Dole's image as snappish.
The "hatchet man" image is not complete caricature, but neither is it full biography. His record and a small band of close friends paint a portrait of temperance. Raised on the hardscrabble plains of Kansas and injured in war, Dole marked his political career fighting a measured battle for the man in overalls.
He resisted deficits, sought rights for minorities and the disabled, and even wove a few stitches into the social safety net his party now seeks to reduce.
"Let me borrow the words of Richard Nixon: Bob Dole is a conservative with a heart," says Tom Korologos, a longtime Dole friend and Washington lobbyist. "He has a soft spot for the disabled, the farmer, and the worker bee."
GOP strategists hope that Bob Dole the man comes through tonight. In the shut-up, keep-working household of Doran and Bina Dole, self-promotion was impermissible and compliments few. Dole still winces at discussing himself. But if the private person recedes behind the public persona tonight, analysts say Dole will have missed a unique opportunity to tell voters who he is and what makes him tick.
Early in the race for the nomination, Dole promised to be another Ronald Reagan, if that's what voters wanted. Delegates at this convention seem to, and Dole's message has become decidedly Reaganesque. The candidate promises deep tax cuts and an end to affirmative action, and backs such favorite GOP themes as making English the official language and enshrining school prayer in the Constitution.
But Dole the man hasn't been so ideological. Yes, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee in 1981, he helped write and pass Ronald Reagan's landmark tax cuts. It wasn't that he agreed with the president. Dole has always been suspicious of the supply-side promise that tax cuts would eliminate the deficit through growth. Growing up in Depression-era Kansas, where a boy might earn a nickel if he pulled enough dandelions from a neighbor's lawn, debt was serious.
But Dole has always held a deep respect for the institutions of government, so he supported his party's president and fought for Mr. Reagan's tax cut. Two years later, with deficits growing, he engineered a massive tax hike.
Other early lessons shaped Dole's thinking on government as well. As a young county attorney in Russell, he signed the welfare checks that kept his destitute grandfather afloat. Years later, he would remember how vital that support was to his family. While his party fought against the expansive Great Society initiatives such as Medicare and Medicaid - both of which Dole opposed - during the 1960s, the young senator fought to make food stamps easier for the poor to obtain.
Then there was the war. Dole went off to Italy a reluctant but physically imposing young officer. He came back wounded. He spent 39 months in hospitals, then returned to school with Uncle Sam's gratitude. "It's pretty hard to stand up, being a beneficiary of the GI Bill of Rights, as I have, and say the government doesn't do any good things," he once said.
The war injury left Dole's right arm useless. He hides the handicap from public view as much as possible, but it is easy to see how much it has influenced his priorities. In 1990, for example, Dole rallied his reluctant GOP colleagues in the Senate behind the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"Bob Dole talked about it passionately," recalls Warren Rudman, a close friend and former GOP senator from New Hampshire. "A number of members felt the bill would be a burden on business, but Dole kept at it."
THE Republican Party that has nominated Dole views affirmative action as another undesirable big-government intrusion. Dole backs that view now, but hasn't always been comfortable doing so. "We'll take a look at it," he said in a Monitor interview in January. Then, with a grimace, he revealed some discomfort with the party line. "Nobody likes discrimination."
Thirty years earlier, Dole backed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, warning his GOP colleagues to keep pace with the times. In 1985, when Social Security was headed toward bankruptcy, Dole led the effort in the Senate to insure its solvency. Throughout his career, he has backed farm-support programs.
Dole is dispassionate, as sparring with words as his parents were with coins. He can be partisan and calculating. It is often easier to know what Dole opposes than what he stands for. But in the end, he remains sensitive to the downcast and aware of the positive role government can play.