BOSTON — Maybe Bob Dole is the most optimistic man in America after all.
After an active week of campaigning through the electoral-college rich Midwest, the Republican presidential candidate headed down to Florida yesterday for some patio time.
And why not? September is just about over, which means the campaign can begin in earnest. Mr. Dole's best hopes lie in October, the final 40, the stretch. The last time he was on a national ticket, in 1976 as the GOP vice-presidential nominee, his running mate Gerald Ford gained 15 points on challenger Jimmy Carter in the last three weeks of the election and almost scored an upset. The large undecided bloc will soon start committing itself. The debates are coming. Maybe special counsel Kenneth Starr will let loose an October Whitewater surprise (not likely, but Republicans can always hope). Better get tanned and prepped.
Of course, whatever leisure time Dole does grab this weekend is going to be about as calm as Jack Kemp watching Monday night football. During and between bronzing sessions poolside at his condo in Bal Harbour, he'll be sparring with debate coaches and issue briefers. And he's going to be watching the polls closely to see if the zingers he launched this week are causing voters to think twice about reelecting Bill Clinton.
Starting in Grayslake, Ill., last Sunday, on the third anniversary of President Clinton's ambitious plan to overhaul health care, Dole evoked the old Reagan favorite: He labeled his opponent a Liberal. It became the chorus of the week.
From Iowa to St. Louis, Dole attacked Clinton's record on taxes, drugs, and immigration. Poking fun at the administration's suggestion of a tax on outdoor equipment: "Even birdseed would be hit by a 5 percent tax," he quipped in Detroit Tuesday. The same day, in a letter to his former colleagues on Capitol Hill regarding illegal immigration, Dole labeled Clinton and the Democrats with the L-word nine times. A new TV ad sharpens the negative barbs against what Dole calls the president's lax drug policy.
Republican lawmakers are also getting in on the game. With Congress on the verge of letting out, itchy GOP incumbents in the House and Senate are tarring their opponents as eager leftists.
But it may not have been the best week for Dole to return to his economic message, which has taken a back seat to recent reports of rising teenage drug use. Try as he may to paint a dire picture of the country's fiscal future, there's little Dole can do to stem the flow of good economic news. On Tuesday, after weeks of suspense, the Federal Reserve said that it would not raise interest rates, sending a signal that it believes the economy is in little danger of rising inflation. The decision not to apply the economic brakes positions Clinton to benefit from sustained growth through the election.
The incumbent, meanwhile, answered the challenger's attacks with presidential poise. In a speech before the United Nation's General Assembly on Wednesday, Clinton chided member states for failing to adopt "zero tolerance" strategies on terrorism and drug trafficking. He also signed a treaty banning nuclear testing, and despite a veto by India, vowed that the US would honor it.
Earlier in the week, Clinton signed a military spending bill that boosts Pentagon purchasing power and gives personnel a 3 percent raise. The president held a special ceremony at the White House to sign the bill, which includes a nongermaine measure strengthening federal laws against stalking. The bill was a twofer: It bolsters the president's image as both national defender and a tough, victim-friendly crime fighter.
Dole's friends on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, may have done him more harm than good this week. The House separated a strict amendment from its immigration bill that would have barred children of illegal aliens from attending public school, paving the way for Clinton to sign a final bill and robbing Dole of a critical campaign issue. The Senate, meanwhile, was expected yesterday to uphold a veto on late-term abortions.
A few minor notes: Perot has found an issue. The decision to bar him from the presidential debates, the first of which is on Oct. 6 in Hartford, Conn., gave the feisty Texan fodder for his anti-Washington campaign. He let his indignation fly in St. Louis, on the day and in the city where the first debate was originally scheduled.
Back when Dole was chasing the nomination, he liked to pack his stump stages with Republican governors -"our best assets," as he called them. Where are they now? Gov. John Engler missed a Kemp rally in Michigan; Gov. George Voinovich missed another in Cleveland. By coincidence or calculated absence?
Vice President Al Gore made his 10th trip home to Tennessee this week. Pride may be at stake. It's bad enough that a Republican holds the Senate seat he and his father used to claim. Losing the state in November would be bad for morale, and no way to start the race for 2000.