Dole Shifts to Center - Will His Party Follow?

In Nixonian fashion, Bob Dole is trying to reposition himself - and the Republican Party - toward a more moderate image that will broaden GOP appeal in November.

Mr. Dole's riskiest gambit came this week, when the Republican presidential candidate took on party conservatives - and activist Gary Bauer in particular - over the abortion passage in the Republican platform.

Beyond abortion, Dole has sent other signals of moderation:

*He has cooled his rhetoric against affirmative action. Last weekend he declined to sign a fund-raising letter for California's anti-affirmative-action ballot initiative. In his latest trip to vote-rich California, he didn't mention affirmative action.

*In his farewell speech to the Senate this week, Dole adopted a warmly bipartisan tone in highlighting the achievements of his Senate career, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act, food stamps, nutrition programs for children, and the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Conservatives grumbled that he looked back to "liberal" programs and didn't convey a vision for the future.

But at the risk of alienating conservatives, Dole appears to be addressing weaknesses among other important constituencies: women and suburban voters. Dole's pronounced gender gap is not so much a result of his position on abortion - women are no more for abortion rights than men are - but on economic "safety net" issues, such as Medicare.

"Men and women differ on the appropriate role of government," says political analyst William Schneider. Women are more willing than men to look to government as potentially helpful, he explains.

In the suburbs, polls show Dole beating President Clinton, but only barely. Analysts say Dole needs a strong showing in the suburbs to beat Mr. Clinton in November. Suburban voters tend to be moderate in their views, including on abortion. Even if many Republican suburbanites oppose abortion in most cases, they appear to be uncomfortable with a party program that calls for an amendment to the Constitution banning abortion without exception. Exit polls from this year's Republican primaries show more than two-thirds of the party's voters want the platform's statement on abortion removed.

Powell is 'not going to run'

Dole advisers discount the notion that Dole's moves toward moderation may lure retired Gen. Colin Powell onto the ticket. "[General] Powell's not going to run," says former Gov. Carroll Campbell (R) of South Carolina, co-chairman of the Dole campaign. "I've talked to him two or three times recently, and he doesn't want it."

But even if moderate Republicans don't get their dream ticket, they are still delighted that Dole has insisted on putting so-called "tolerance language" - a statement acknowledging differing views within the party on abortion - right in the abortion plank, and not in the preamble as a general statement of tolerance on a range of issues. Moderates hope that the feud with Mr. Bauer, president of the anti-abortion Family Research Council, will help position Dole as a centrist - much as Clinton took on rapper Sister Souljah four years ago to show he was not a captive of the left.

"Gary Bauer is Dole's Sister Souljah," says Michael Dubke, executive director of the Ripon Society, a moderate Republican group. "The only difference is that Sister Souljah didn't have delegates at the national convention."

And therein lies the risk for Dole. Conservative Republicans have been at work putting together delegations to the convention that are adamantly anti-abortion. In some states, party activists have asked delegates to pledge that they will not support a change to the abortion plank or support a vice presidential nominee who supports abortion rights.

In Texas, the effort has escalated into a bid to keep Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who supports abortion rights, off the state's delegation. Texas' other Republican senator, Phil Gramm, has threatened to boycott his state delegation if Senator Hutchison is ostracized.

Invoking President Reagan

Dole advisers are playing down the entire abortion controversy. "All Dole's saying is people have different positions on abortion; that's what Ronald Reagan said in 1980," when the party's abortion plank contained tolerance language, says Governor Campbell. "Bob Dole has been a pro-life person all of his life and has a perfect voting record with the Christian Coalition."

Regardless, moderate Republicans know Dole will have his work cut out for him at the San Diego convention in August and believe he will prevail. "I'm a firm believer that - be they pro-choice or pro-life - Republicans will ultimately support their nominee's wishes," says a moderate activist. "But he may look like an AT&T operator with a phone attached to his ear calling up all those delegates."

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