Bob Dole is free at last from Congress to pursue President Clinton and is quickly finding how hard it is to hit a rapidly moving target.
In Wisconsin on May 21, Dole made a long-planned speech seeking to draw a line between himself and the incumbent on the welfare issue. The speech had some new features, like mandatory drug testing for welfare clients. But much of Mr. Dole's fire was stolen by the president in his radio talk the preceding Saturday. Enraging Republicans and disheartening his own liberal supporters, Mr. Clinton embraced the stringent Wisconsin welfare plan that would end the half-century welfare entitlement and substitute wages for mandated work.
In two previous radio talks, the president borrowed from Republican ideas for measures to keep teenage parents in school and to provide tax credits for child adoption.
In Washington May 20, Clinton announced unconditional renewal of China's most-favored-nation trade status, comfortable in the knowledge that Dole supports this position.
The previous evening, Dole, on his first weekend as an instant outsider, visited a Cuban-American festival in Miami, promising, if elected, to "bring Fidel Castro down." But the Cuban exile community is generally happy with Clinton, who has done about everything short of a Bay of Pigs invasion to keep the pressure on Mr. Castro.
In the search for an issue that will draw a clear line, some of Dole's supporters were urging him to propose a large across-the-board tax cut as high as 25%. In The Wall Street Journal, Sen. Spencer Abraham recommended 15% as a first step toward replacing the tax code with a "flatter and simpler system." The Republican candidate would have to consider whether that would seem to contradict his dedication to a balanced budget.
What Dole is learning is that, as Todd Purdum wrote in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Clinton is better at defining himself in relation to his opposition than defining his own goals. That is disconcerting to his supporters - but maddening to his opponent.