Dole Dilemma: Wooing Voters in BBQ Season

Republican concern grows as presidential candidate's piecemeal campaign fails to resonate with the electorate

In New York, he is co-author of a book about life in power. In Glen Ellyn, Ill., he is favorite son of a virtuous Midwestern American. In Cleveland, he is a defender of immigrants.

Since leaving the Senate, Bob Dole has been traveling some hard miles, heading out from Washington five or six times a week in search of support for the presidency. Aides say Mr. Dole is putting together the puzzle piece by piece, addressing different types of voters, raising funds, and building local campaign organizations.

But more than a few political observers, including prominent Republicans, have trouble finding a clear strategy in Dole's travels. Critics fail to see a concise, consistent message, and indeed, Dole has decided to wait until August to unveil the cornerstone of his campaign - a comprehensive set of economic proposals including tax cuts.

Dole's flight path, and the criticism of it, reflects a predicament of modern presidential campaigns: What to do about June and July, the dead space between the primaries and the conventions when voters are more apt to watch their tomatoes ripen than the evening news. Thirty years ago, candidates took a hiatus from the campaign trail. Now, the insatiable appetite of television demands constant movement.

Some argue there is little a candidate in Dole's position can do during this period. The factors that favor the incumbent - the economy and foreign relations - are strong. All Dole's traveling so far, they note, has done little to whittle his deficit in national polls. In just days, the Olympics will push politics even further from public thought.

"It is late to be following a strategy of retail politics," says Allan Lichtman, a political scientist at American University in Washington. "The big picture favors Bill Clinton. I do not see a magic wand out there [for Dole] in grass-roots America."

But others, including campaign veterans, disagree. The summer months can be a valuable time to hone the major themes of a campaign, unify the party's base, and reach a comfortable stride before the general election. "There is an enormous amount to be said for being out there, touching your base, showing the flag," says Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee. "But what's the point of showing up if you don't have a plan? Dole has to show who he is and what he stands for."

A recent stop in Cleveland illustrates what the Dole campaign hopes to achieve during these summer weeks. On the surface, it seemed like a minor event. Dole had already delivered a lengthy foreign-policy speech in Philadelphia in time for national newspaper deadlines and prime-time network coverage. Why fly an extra 650 miles round trip to address a conclave of ethnic Slovenians celebrating their country's fifth anniversary of independence?

The visit served at least two purposes. Ohio is an important state. It has 22 must-win electoral votes. It also has George Voinovich, one of the most visible GOP governors in the country, a key Dole ally, and possible vice presidential choice. Dole took time to meet behind closed doors with the governor.

Then came the speech, a tribute to freedom and this country's immigrant heritage. Although, it lasted about as long as a polka, it was enough, however, for a soundbite on local late news channels, and the next morning, a newspaper photo of Dole dancing with a woman in traditional Slovenian costume sat on the door steps of one of the largest communities of German and eastern European immigrants in the country. A community, in addition, that has a tradition of voting for Democrats.

"You have to take all the time given to you," says Steve Merksamer, a senior Dole adviser. "We're laying the foundation for an aggressive campaign, testing various themes, and reacting to various audiences. You need to hone your skills as you get ready for the big one in the fall."

Paul Begala is skeptical. A campaign strategist for Bill Clinton in 1992, he recalls how they used June and July to erode a polling deficit similar to the one Dole faces now. Instead of traveling widely, Clinton focused his major themes and targeted his delivery. Mr. Begala thinks Dole is too focused on the tactical side - taking shots on the gas tax, tobacco, and President Clinton's judicial appointments - rather than uniting the Republican base and hitting the big issues.

"Instead of being mealy mouthed at empty events, you have to talk about what people care about - the economy, values, national security - and defy the press to ignore you," Begala says. "Dole is a formidable man with a party that has won five of the past seven elections, but he's flopping around like a fish on a deck. His campaign isn't about issues yet."

But Christina Martin, a Dole spokeswoman, says every campaign has its own strategy. "Dole has stated several times he will offer his vision for America around the convention," she says. "We want to give voters a chance to get to know Citizen Dole as opposed to Senator Dole. It is an education process...."

Stanley Frank, who heard Dole speak in Cleveland, says, "I think he seems sincere." But Ken Hiltunen, a civilian military employee from Warren, Mich., who is inclined to vote for Dole, hesitates: "The primary problem is that we keep hearing what Dole is against and not what he is for."

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