Robert Dole on display

A favorite game among reporters in Washington is to try to entice potential presidential candidates into showing interest in running before they are ready to do so. The other morning it was the Senate majority leader, Robert Dole, looking particularly happy and confident after quarterbacking a budget victory in the Senate a few days before, who was being asked to disclose his presidential aspirations. Q: ``After your budget win, senator, there is more and more talk in Washington of your being in the forefront among possible presidential candidates. Do you heap scorn on such speculation?''

A: (Laughter.) ``Every day.''

Q: ``But seriously?''

A: ``Not only is it too early -- but in my case, we have a lot of work to do in the Senate. Also, I haven't gotten word yet from home -- what she plans to do.'' (Laughter from reporters.) ``No, Elizabeth hasn't told me.''

Q: ``But beyond the consultations you will have with Transportation Secretary Dole on which of you will seek the presidency, there is this question: Would it be possible for you to carry on as Senate leader and still run for president?''

A: ``I think it could be done. I see it differently than Howard Baker saw it.''

Here the senator, resorting to the wry humor that has become his trademark, quipped that ``outside of some relatives and some creditors,'' he really wasn't getting much encouragement to run. But there was little doubt but what the Kansas senator was enjoying questions that indicated he was very much center stage these days. He has to remember that not too many years ago he had become almost the forgotten man in Washington.

After the senator lost out in his bid for the vice-presidency in 1976, he hit a low in his life -- both in his own morale and in his standing with the public. In debating Walter Mondale, Mr. Dole's quips had often seemed barbed and unnecessary. And in putting the blame on the Democrats for getting the United States into wars, he had opened himself up to charges of demagoguery. Indeed, in the end many Republicans thought Gerald Ford might have won with someone else as a running mate. Dole's day in the sun was over -- or so many thought.

For a while he wasn't even able to find a forum that was interested in hearing his views. He had become a rather inconsequential senator from Kansas. Yes, that's the same Senator Dole who is about the hottest article in town these days -- and who has TV panel shows and other groups fighting to get him to honor them with his presence.

Even before his run for vice-president, Dole had more than his share of critics. He was often referred to by other senators and by the press as ``sharp tongued.'' His witty parries, now getting rave reviews, were often taken as ill-spirited thrusts from a youngish upstart. President Nixon liked his spunk and his jabbing at the Democrats. But by the time Dole was made GOP national chairman, being a ``Nixon man'' was not too much of a plus. Watergate was casting its shadow.

But Dole fought back. He toned down his wit; his humor these days is mostly self-deprecating. He began to show colleagues a real knack for understanding issues and getting things done.

Before long, as the ``new'' Dole came more and more to be accepted as the ``real'' Dole, the senator had accumulated a bunch of friends on the Hill. And from this growing popularity he climbed to the Senate GOP leadership, where he is showing a rare skill at playing the middleman role between the Senate and the President.

At the breakfast with reporters the senator was, for the most part, especially low key. His quips, uncharacteristic of the ``old'' Dole, fell gently on the ear. Also, he was very cautious. He was not about to lambaste the Democrats in Congress. He knows he has to work with them. The old outspokenness showed through once, when he charged that Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has not ``leveled'' with the Senate leadership on his defense budget.

Dole, clearly, would bring much to the presidency:

He is quickly showing, by his skill at the Senate majority helm, that he is a natural leader. Further, Senate Democrats join Republicans in praising his knowledge of the legislative process -- and his ``feel'' for finding positions on which differing senators can come together. A president with such legislative know-how would be helped immensely in shaping a legislative package that would be acceptable in Congress.

With Elizabeth Dole as his wife, Dole would bring a powerful duo to the White House. It would raise some interesting questions, however. Would the First Lady also be a member of the cabinet? Or would she become Dole's primary adviser -- without taking a formal office? Or again, would Mrs. Dole have to declare her nonparticipation in presidential affairs -- and play a traditional role?

Actually, should she become the candidate and win, even more interesting questions would arise: Would the new ``First Man'' stay on as a Senate leader? Or would he resign from the Senate and conduct himself somewhat like a Mr. Thatcher?

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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