Dole Declares

BOB DOLE officially announced yesterday that he is doing what everyone knows he's been doing for months: taking a third run at the US presidency.

There's scarcely anything new to be said about a politician as familiar as Mr. Dole. But we're getting refresher courses, nonetheless, on his small-town Kansas upbringing, his courage in surmounting the wounds suffered in World War II, and his long record as a determined and pragmatic legislator.

What's very new, this time around for Dole, is the arena into which he brings his long commitment to public service. The politics of 1996 will be shaped by sweeping attempts, emanating from the right, to reshape American government. The Contract With America is one reformist current. Another flows from the religious right, which remains a powerful force in GOP politics.

A third push for change comes from Ross Perot's independent movement. Many independents who voted Republican in November are less than thrilled with the accomplishments of Newt Gingrich and crew. Compromises in getting Contract legislation through, plus the defeat of issues like term limits, smacked of the same old politics to them.

The art of the compromise has been a strength of Dole's through his many decades in Washington. How does a master politician and lawmaker use that strength at a time when voters look askance at ''insider'' skills?

The senator may have hinted at one answer when he recently shifted to the right on affirmative action and the assault weapons ban. The danger in going too far in that direction to win primary votes is that a candidate could find himself sealed off from more moderate voters later on.

How far should he go to win support from the religious right, which holds abortion as the overriding issue? How much should he worry about hustling Contract planks through the slow-moving Senate?

Perhaps the best contribution Bob Dole can make to the coming presidential race is a clear enunciation of the purpose of the American legislative system, which still works quite well after 200 years despite the frantic proclamations of its ruin. Beset by shrill politics, the country could use a capable spokesman for the system, who knows from experience the value of reasoned compromise -- and the courage it requires.

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