Campaign Strategy From a Veteran Observer

Just for fun I'm going to play the role of a political consultant to both presidential candidates. The subject is "How to Win." So first, here goes with my unsolicited advice for Bill Clinton:

My message to you, Mr. President, is short and sweet. Keep doing what you've been doing - coming up with a new proposal every day, upstaging all of your opponent's initiatives. Sure, this is taking you close to the ideological center. But you're undercutting Dole. Thus, you don't let him up off the mat while risking little among liberals who may not like your positioning on issues - such as welfare reform - but have nowhere else to go.

And now my advice for Bob Dole, which will take a lot longer, simply because a Dole comeback is obviously quite difficult to craft:

You know, Mr. Dole, from firsthand experience how to turn an election around: As his vice-presidential candidate you were at President Ford's side when he came from as far behind as you are today to within a hair of victory.

Actually, at convention time in 1976, polls were showing Mr. Ford to be about 30 percentage points behind Jimmy Carter. It was at that convention in Kansas City where Ford's upsurge began. This is a reminder of how he did it - although I'm sure you remember it well.

On the morning of the first day of that convention I ran into one of Ford's top aides, someone who was known to have a lot to say about the president's political strategy. "Do you have anything up your sleeve," I asked, "something that could save this Ford campaign?" Yes, he said, Ford was thinking seriously of pulling away from the text of his acceptance speech later in the week and challenging Carter to debate.

WELL - as you remember - Ford did exactly that. As he raised his arm and looked into the camera and issued his challenge, the heretofore disheartened delegates broke into a roar. Ford was letting them know that he was going to be a fighting candidate. And soon the news media were proclaiming that a "new" Ford was emerging as he showed himself to be a particularly attractive candidate, full of vigor and ideas. This was in sharp contrast with his public image during a brief presidency marked by little time for action and the unpopular pardoning of Richard Nixon.

Ford picked up those 30 points. In fact, there was a short period during the fall campaign when the polls had him slightly out in front. And then - ironically - he made that blooper in his final debate, asserting that Poland was not under the domination of the Soviet Union, which may well have cost him the election.

Yes, I'm aware that both Clinton and you have indicated a willingness to debate, and that you will probably meet three or four times after the conventions. So you can't surprise anyone by issuing a challenge.

But I think you could still use the debates as a vehicle for a comeback. You could let the delegates - and the country - know of your eagerness to take Clinton on. Peggy Noonan could give you a good fighting line, something that could stir up the cheers - much as she did for George Bush in 1988.

This brings me to what I've taken a lot of space to get at: The very fact that you are perceived as the poorer debater when pitted against that master of words, Bill Clinton, would provide you with a great opportunity.

You would be the underdog. The public expectation would be that Clinton would maul you, maybe embarrass you. Yes, that could happen. But remember that 1960 Nixon vs. Kennedy debate. Most pundits saw Richard Nixon making John F. Kennedy look bad.

I had a ringside seat at that debate, along with a few pool reporters allowed to sit close by at the television station. What made Kennedy the winner that evening was that he showed the millions who were watching that he could stand toe-to-toe with the formidable Nixon and hold his own.

You, too, could show your stuff in debates where you would be expected to be the loser - and from an impressive performance you might be able to fashion a comeback.

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