Dole Swinging Hard But Can He Connect?

Strikes at Clinton on immigration and 900 FBI files

Late in an autumn afternoon, on a stage crowded with stacks of canned fruit cocktail and pitted olives, Bob Dole grows reflective.

"If it's worth it, you've got to go out and work for it," the Republican presidential candidate tells a crowd outside a packing plant, his voice growing soft. "And sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. But you go out and work and work and work."

In the final days of an election stubbornly resistant to Mr. Dole's candidacy, his campaign is taking on different moods and personas.

There are moments of frustration and lashing accusation against the press and the incumbent, President Clinton. A day later, there are moments of renewed vigor and palpable excitement.

Is this a campaign that truly believes it can pull off a Yankees-like victory? Or is it one that feels a kind of freedom in the final moments of a long game, when the expectation of victory has largely vanished?

Dole launched an aggressive new attempt to sway California voters this weekend on the issue of immigration, pumping roughly $4 million in advertisements and adding criticism of Clinton's naturalization policies to stump speeches. California, the largest electoral prize, is critical to Dole's prospects.

Mood on the Dole bus

But there are also the occasional admissions, intended or not, of what analysts say is the inevitable. Charlie Black, a senior adviser traveling with Dole through the Central Valley, let slip a telling comment during a conversation with a reporter about the obstacles Dole has faced. He noted that the presidential election will be different next time because "you won't have an incumbent in the race." Asked if he was conceding to Clinton, he stammered, implying Dole wouldn't seek a second term in 2000.

At the least, Dole has started acting more like the candidate many Republicans have long urged him to be. He is making a vigorous case for why this election has consequences, seizing on a host of allegations against the Clinton administration. Dole's speeches have become a string of attacks intended to raise the question of accountability.

He accuses the administration of rushing through a mass naturalization of immigrants for political gain, contending that 10 percent of the newcomers have criminal records. In fact, the record number of people granted citizenship this year more likely comes in response to new limits placed on the availability of social services for nonnaturalized immigrants, and the FBI says the criminal element in that group is much smaller that Dole suggests.

Dole also for the first time is accusing the president himself of reading confidential FBI files without proper intent or reason. He offers no proof of this charge, and the president has said publicly he only became aware of the mishandling of some 900 files by his administration through news reports. The Republican candidate continues to rally crowds over recent revelations of campaign contributions to the Democrats by Asian sources, asking - and chiding - the media: "Where is the outrage?"

When asked for proof of the allegations, Dole press secretary Nelson Warfield responds: "We believe Bill Clinton should answer the questions.... [He] has dirty hands in a lot of ways. What does it take in this administration to get simple answers?" So is accountability the defining theme in the campaign's final days? Advisers hesitate. "If there is a word to describe [his message], I'm not sure what that word is," says Ken Khachigian, Dole's top California strategist. "But it's (a) worrying about unleashing [Clinton] in a second administration and (b) trusting that [Clinton] will do what he'll say."

Despite the new rhetoric, new advertisement campaigns - Mr. Khachigian estimates Dole is outspending Clinton 3 to 2 in California on paid media - and hurry-up itinerary, the campaign has an air of "too little, too late."

Dole hopes now to ride immigration to an 11th-hour upset in the Golden State just as Gov. Pete Wilson did in 1994, when he overcame a 17-point deficit in the final weeks of that race. Repeating that performance is unlikely, according to John Pitney, a political scientist at the Claremont McKenna College in California. The issue of immigration has changed, he notes, and new messages take time to sink in.

Late on immigration

Immigration "is used up," he notes. "The trouble for Dole is that every politician is now out against illegal immigration. Dole is a consensus politician, not a conviction politician. When consensus politicians push hot-button issues, they usually aren't convincing. He's taking this up suddenly and late."

But state Attorney General Dan Lundgren disagrees. He says California voters are just beginning to pay attention, partly because they have had a long gap between the primary here and general election: "This is probably the latest-forming electorate that I've ever seen."

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