Dole's Long Road Ahead

Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole comes out of a successful convention about 10 points behind in the polls, a lot better off than a week earlier. His challenges this week were to make a good choice for vice president, firm up and energize his Republican base with a harmonious convention, and introduce himself to the American people.

He accomplished the first by choosing former congressman and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp. Observers agree the Kemp choice also helped with the second challenge. Republicans who were down in the mouth 10 days ago are now smiling, seeing the possibility of victory. The third goal was heavily dependent on Senator Dole's acceptance speech last night.

In order to win the election, the Dole campaign will have to convince voters that the Kansan is an acceptable alternative to President Clinton. That means convincing many people to give Mr. Dole a second look. A Republican needs 80 to 90 percent of the GOP vote, 50 percent of independents, and 10 to 20 percent of Democrats to win, according to political consultant Ed Rollins, who spoke at a Monitor breakfast in San Diego. That's going to be tough to pull off against a man who almost everyone agrees is one of the best campaigners since John F. Kennedy.

And if Ross Perot is in the race as Reform Party nominee, Dole will have an added challenge. Dole campaign co-chairman Vin Weber, like many other Republican strategists, doesn't think Mr. Perot will capture as many votes as he did in 1992 (when he got 19 percent). He predicted Perot will instead become a marginal figure with single-digit percentages, but a crucial figure even so, "because elections are decided on the margins."

So Dole now has to focus on appealing to independents and Democrats. His campaign structured the convention to stay away from controversial issues like abortion and highlight instead his economic policies and the GOP's openness to women and minorities. He has to overcome the gender gap that Republicans usually face (at least since 1980) and soften the edges - in Mr. Rollins' words, make women see him as a fatherly or grandfatherly figure who understands their problems and their children's needs.

To capture the key Great Lakes and mid-Atlantic states that he now trails in, Dole must convince suburban blue-collar swing voters in places like Macomb County, Mich., that he will deliver on his 15 percent tax-cut and balanced-budget proposals, and that these will have a positive impact on their lives. Jack Kemp will go into urban America and argue that the Republican approach offers the best hope for disadvantaged minorities to improve their lot.

Dole and his advisers must let the public get to know the "real" Bob Dole - not the angry wisecracker people have come to know from TV news sound bites, but the man from small-town America, the man who overcame great adversity, the warm man known to those close to him, the man of integrity. This has to go much deeper than taking off ties and dressing in casual clothing.

Republican strategists believe that the public wants change. They think they can win by portraying Mr. Clinton as the defender of the status quo and the GOP as the party of change - less taxes, economic growth, smaller government.

The White House will argue that the Republican proposals are extreme and that they cannot be implemented without destroying the social safety net and ballooning the federal deficit. The next 2 1/2 months will show which side the American public believes.

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