As if the latest polling numbers aren't bad enough, Bob Dole faces a Greek chorus of GOP brethren with little nice to say about their likely nominee's run for the White House.
The ever-voluble Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York has been verbally wringing his hands in the media about Mr. Dole's lack of a message. Republican governors have, on the record, chided Dole for getting side-tracked on peripheral issues like tobacco. Republican state party leaders are in open anguish about how a weak Dole campaign could depress Republican turnout and hurt their candidates in state and local races.
"With Republicans like these, who needs Democrats?" quips Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"It's unseemly," says a GOP campaign veteran, who declined to criticize fellow Republicans on the record. "I would say if you're not on the inside, you don't have much right to criticize."
What polls say
The latest polls haven't helped. A Harris Poll shows President Clinton up by by 22 points in a two-way race against Dole. Since the era of modern polling began, in 1972, no presidential candidate has come back to win from this far down with only a few months to go, says polling expert Karlyn Bowman at the American Enterprise Institute. She doesn't expect Dole to get much bounce from the GOP convention, which begins Aug. 12 in San Diego.
The Dole campaign is aware of the challenge ahead and is working overtime to get back in the game. Among its recent moves:
*Donald Rumsfeld, a former defense secretary and White House chief of staff under President Ford, is now overseeing the campaign's policy development. The timing for the unveiling of Dole's economic plan has been moved up.
*Dole is exercising greater discipline in his public statements; no more off-the-cuff comments to reporters.
*A plan for more surrogate campaigners will soon move into high gear, highlighting the new Dole slogan, "The better man for a better America." Dole held a luncheon Tuesday for his former primary opponents, and those who attended (Pat Buchanan did not) report Dole was upbeat.
"A lot of us are anxious to be surrogates," says Lamar Alexander, who ran for the nomination and, as a former education secretary, plans to speak out for Dole, particularly on education.
On Capitol Hill, GOP leaders are scheduling action on issues that will highlight differences between Dole and Mr. Clinton. The matter of a constitutional amendment to allow organized school prayer is now on a legislative fast track. Dole has consistently voted for bills to allow school prayer, a position that is popular with the public. Clinton opposes a constitutional amendment.
GOP House leaders are also planning a vote in September to try to override Clinton's veto of a bill banning an abortion procedure known as "partial birth abortion." Both issues are important to religious conservatives.
Charlie Black, an informal adviser to the Dole campaign, argues that part of Dole's challenge lies in the fact that he's had so much time between locking up the nomination (in March) and the Republican convention (in August) and no money for advertising. The Republican National Committee is now putting together a $20 million ad campaign to support Dole.
Other Dole partisans argue that in the preconvention summer dog days, polls are soft. "I don't think most people are thinking about this. Most people are on vacation," Mr. Alexander says.
Polls also show some room for Dole to make inroads. Many voters think Clinton lacks presidential character and may have done something illegal in Whitewater, but are prepared to vote for him anyway. Republicans hope to peel these voters away to their side.
Some GOP advisers also argue that even if Dole doesn't offer much in the way of coattails to Republican candidates, neither does Clinton do much for Democrats.
"The presidential race isn't having much impact on the agenda, because Clinton is endorsing the Republican agenda," says Steve Salmore, a New Jersey political scientist who is advising local Republican candidates. "If Clinton wins it will be a personal victory, not a party victory."
But Mr. Salmore doesn't deny that a poor showing by Dole could hurt New Jersey Republicans, especially in a close race like that between Reps. Dick Zimmer (R) and Robert Torricelli (D), who are vying to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley. "Any time a presidential candidate appears he might lose by a wide margin, it has to have an impact down ballot," says Salmore.