As Bob Dole heads into the final weeks of the presidential contest, one of his main missions is to try to shove Bill Clinton out of the political center.
Mr. Dole's advisers believe that if their man is ever to sit in the Oval Office, he has to paint the current occupant as an old-fashioned liberal. Thus in Sunday's presidential debate the ex-Senate majority leader talked about Mr. Clinton's failed health-reform bureaucracy and his tax-and-spend friend Sen. Ted Kennedy, and charged that the president has big-government plans for America's future.
The problem is that the left-wing label is hard to stick on a chief executive who just signed welfare reform and is himself running hard toward the political middle. By the time the TV lights dimmed in Hartford, ideological differences between the two candidates, while present, seemed less than huge. Both appeared to be standing in the center of the political road.
"Bob Dole fell short in drawing sharp distinctions of philosophy," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. "These were two men groping for the center, offering two vaguely different visions for the future. Dole will get a modest bounce, however, because to those undecided voters unfamiliar with him, the debate, on balance, offered a favorable introduction."
The campaign focus now shifts to St. Petersburg, Fla., where Vice President Al Gore meets GOP challenger Jack Kemp tomorrow night. Expect a reprise of Sunday night, as Mr. Gore defends the administration's record and Mr. Kemp lauds Dole's message of economic reform.
"We're in a three-act play," says Dole adviser Charlie Black, referring to the full complement of campaign debates. "The vice-presidential debate will offer the same discussion of issues. Kemp will reinforce the differences Dole identified" in Hartford.
Those differences, however, weren't entirely clear after Sunday night's event. With commanding knowledge of numbers and voting records, Dole and Clinton marked their positions across the spectrum from taxes to foreign policy. But in a broader ideological context, the two fled from the fringes and emerged as advocates of smaller government.
Telling the 'liberal' joke
Dole tried hard to cast the president as a Washington liberal. At one point the ex-majority leader drew laughs by remembering a time during his tenure in the Senate when he had said the phrase, "Let me tax your memories," on the chamber floor.
"Ted Kennedy jumped up and said, 'Why haven't we thought of that before?' " said Dole, in an attempt to link the president with his party's liberal-wing war horse.
But even as he did this, Dole defended various federal social programs - recalling his support of food stamps, for instance.
The Dole-Clinton battle over the center has consequences. With Reform Party candidate Ross Perot barred from the podium, Dole has an opportunity to court without competition the large bloc of undecided voters he must convince if he is to close the gap with Clinton. He may have made marginal gains in the first round, political analysts say, but failed to score a major blow.
The main thing, though, was to avoid a gaffe. Presidential elections seldom turn on the fall debates, but presence is important, and poor or silly performances have a way of sticking. Dole knows this well from personal experience. His aides were exuberant after the debate Sunday night, when the Republican challenger came across as poised, presidential, and warm. The candidates expressed mutual respect for each other.
To the surprise of the Clinton campaign and the regret of some Dole backers, the crusty Kansan resisted an invitation by moderator Jim Lehrer to exploit the various ethical controversies surrounding the Clinton White House. Dole made two brief mentions of the Whitewater real estate matter, and did not mention others at all. Dole said that he was uncomfortable bringing personal issues into the arena and that throughout his career has observed respect for the office of the presidency.
But to those who think instances such as the 1993 firings in the White House travel office or alleged abuses of FBI files by White House staff raise serious ethical questions, Dole missed an opportunity. The hardest punch Dole threw was to ask why Clinton would publicly consider pardoning a convicted criminal with whom he had business dealings.
"The American people deserve to know who are all these people causing trouble in this White House," says Tom Korologos, a long-time Dole friend who was in Hartford for the debate.
For the most part, the contest over vision became a battle over details. Clinton trumpeted a record intended to underscore his centrist credentials. In his first term, he noted, he cut the deficit by 60 percent, created 10.5 million new jobs, and signed welfare- reform and gun-control measures. He reiterated his proposals to target tax cuts for education, boost literacy rates among children, make college more available, protect the environment and Medicare, and seek incremental health-care reform.
Dole, for his part, stressed his economic message, which includes a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut, a halving of the capital-gains rate, and tax credits families with children. He criticized the administration for sluggish economic growth, higher taxes, and stagnant wages in an appeal to middle-class families, attacked Clinton's foreign policy as inconsistent, and hit repeatedly on the rise in drug use among teenagers.
If no new ground was broken, the debate nonetheless offered voters an opportunity to hear the candidates spell out their different approaches to issues such as school choice. Dole favors vouchers that enable families to use public funds for private education. Clinton backs charter schools - publicly funded institutions that are free to develop their own curricula.
Two kinds of bridges
Both candidates offered a thematic vision for the future - Clinton a "bridge to the 21st century" built on a more educated work force, safer streets, and a clean environment, and Dole a "bridge to trust" built on tax cuts and economic growth, a balanced-budget amendment, and smaller government.
"We tried to talk about what is needed during the next four years," says White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes. "This debate and the next two aren't about who won or lost, but about laying out two different world views."
"The biggest thing for Dole is that the charges of extremism that we have seen in Democratic ad campaigns went by the wayside," says Alex Castellanos, a Dole ad consultant. "Bob Dole put Bill Clinton on defense for the first time in this campaign."
Attention now shifts to the vice-presidential debate, where both camps say the candidates will reinforce points Clinton and Dole made in the first matchup. It may give voters an opportunity to learn about the men who would be next in line for the presidency. Both Mr. Gore and Mr. Kemp are able speakers, but the debate outcome is not likely to have much impact on Dole's prospects.