Any doubt that Bob Dole has the fire in the belly to be president of the United States should be dispelled by his surprise resignation from his beloved Senate seat to concentrate fully on the campaign.
As we noted here last week, Dole's hopes of running as a sitting majority leader ran afoul of the Democrats' deft maneuvering to tie up the Senate, and with it, Dole. The resignation leaves the Kansas senator free to get out of Washington and into the heartland, to campaign seven days a week instead of only on weekends, and to devote all his energies to winning the main prize.
The move also leaves the apparent nominee and party standard-bearer free from having to walk in lock step with Speaker Newt Gingrich and more-conservative House Republicans. Republican focus groups reportedly have shown that the Speaker and the congressional GOP are losing favor with all-important suburban Republican voters. Now Dole can move to the center and distance himself, when he wishes, from some of the House's more-extreme measures. This would take away one of President Clinton's important weapons - tying Dole to Mr. Gingrich and arguing that only he can prevent the implementation of an "extremist" agenda.
What the move does not do, and what Dole still must, is articulate a cohesive electoral program that brings back wandering GOP and independent voters and gives them a reason to support him. Many of them are fiscal conservatives who want lower taxes but are repelled by the GOP's social-conservative wing. These voters appear increasingly convinced that Republican congressmen and women are more concerned about banning abortion, introducing school prayer, and other such measures, than about balancing the budget.
In this regard, Republicans of all stripes should see the electoral wisdom of deleting, or at least modifying, the anti-abortion plank in the party platform, a plank that polls show a clear majority of Republican voters reject. Should the San Diego convention become a donnybrook over the abortion issue, the price will be high indeed. There are sincere convictions on both sides of the debate, but if the party wants to win the White House and keep control of Congress, the argument should be put off for another day.
The Dole resignation also affects the balance of power among Senate Republicans. Dole is the last of the old-line moderates in a leadership role. Majority whip Trent Lott and GOP conference chairman Thad Cochran, both of Mississippi, and GOP Policy Committee chairman Don Nickles of Oklahoma are leading candidates to replace Dole. All are from the Senate GOP's younger, more-conservative wing. What that will mean for relations with the White House and the lower house is not yet clear.
Now to see what kind of campaign Bob Dole, soon-to-be former senator, can wage.