Dole's Strategy: 'Back to Basics, Plus'

Maybe it's the sunshine, the pools, or the parties. Maybe it's a case of wishful thinking on a mass scale.

Whatever the reason, many of the Republicans gathered here appear much more optimistic about Bob Dole's chances in November than they did only a few days ago. Poll numbers are moving, themes are coming together, and Dole aides insist they have a strategy that can win - though they admit it's still a long way from San Diego to the White House.

"For the first time in this whole election cycle the White House has been on the defensive," says Charles Black, a senior Dole adviser. "But we've still got a tough race in front of us against a master campaigner."

The Dole team's election plan might be called "Back to Basics, Plus." It centers on rebuilding the GOP's base in the South and West, then winning enough of the Midwest's traditional battleground states to accumulate the 270 electoral votes needed for November victory.

It's essentially the same plan that President Bush tried, and failed, to ride to reelection in 1992. It has little margin for error, as it requires Mr. Dole to win many of the states that aren't sure-fire bets to go to Democrats.

But it's still a realistic plan, Republicans claim. They say it's possible to win back many important states that went to President Clinton in '92. "Clinton won [states with] 107 electoral votes with less than a 5 percent margin," says GOP pollster Linda DuVall.

It's the GOP base that may be the strategy's key.

This broad, L-shaped swatch runs across the Deep South and Sun Belt part of the country, then turns 90 degrees and heads north through the Rocky Mountain states. Increasingly Republican in recent decades, it's the region that powered the sweeping GOP presidential victories of the 1980s.

The base contains 21 states. When two reliably GOP states outside the L's boundaries, Alaska and Indiana, are added, it accounts for 214 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidential election.

Dole cannot afford to lose anywhere inside the L. Yet Mr. Clinton is competitive in some of Dole's base states.

In 1992, Clinton won Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, and Colorado, among others. Recent polls show the '96 race generally close in Georgia, Louisiana, and even Florida.

Once outside the base, Dole must engage in the political equivalent of hand-to-hand combat in states that have a history of swinging between the parties. With Clinton's base is the Northeast and Northwest, many of the most important battlegrounds are in the Midwest.

Michigan, with 18 electoral votes, may be the hardest-to-call state in the nation; both candidates expect to spend lots of time and money there. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa are other swing prizes.

Much of Dole's television advertising budget may be targeted toward the battlegrounds. Overall, he must win at least eight states outside his base to have a chance at the Oval Office, analysts say.

Two people may already be complicating Dole's simple "Back to Basics" strategy. One is Ross Perot. If Mr. Perot wins the Reform Party nomination and spends lots of his own money campaigning, as now seems likely, several states that once seemed good bets for Republicans may become battlegrounds - and several states in the Democratic column could similarly become questionable.

"He puts a lot of states in play," says Dole adviser Mr. Black, referring to Perot.

Perot could particularly hurt Dole in Texas and Florida - two places where the GOP nominee already has a less-than-sure margin. The billionaire businessman could draw from Clinton in Massachusetts and New York, though the Empire State's 32 electoral votes "would still be tough for us," Black admits.

The second complicating factor is Jack Kemp. A Los Angeles native and former San Diego Charger quarterback, Mr. Kemp might help his running mate make a real run at the biggest electoral prize in the nation.

It's debatable whether Kemp could really boost Dole to California victory. But at the very least, he might scare the Clinton campaign into devoting more of its precious resources there.

"Bob Dole does not understand California. Jack Kemp does," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior associate at Claremont Graduate School's Center for Politics and Economics in California.

The Dole road to victory would still be a hard one. Right now Clinton is ahead in the polls in states whose electoral votes total comfortably above 300, greater than the magic 270 reelection number. And in nationwide polls, Clinton still has comfortable leads.

But a number of factors have nonetheless boosted the party faithful here.

Some polls have showed the race tightening - a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll released Aug. 12 showed Dole only 9 points behind the White House incumbent, as opposed to the 20-point deficits common in preconvention polls. Black says the Dole campaign's internal surveys have "showed some movement" in recent days.

Many delegates here in San Diego see Dole's new economic plan as a defining theme that finally draws a clear line between their man and Clinton. Many are also pleased by the choice of Kemp for vice president.

"I'm excited, I'm energized," says Carol Hensley, an alternate delegate from Fort Worth, Texas. "I'm going to go back home and work much harder" for the Dole ticket, she says.

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