For all her faults as a presidential candidate, Elizabeth Dole has achieved a historic feat: She was the first woman to put together a top-tier candidacy for president of the United States.
That effort has now ended, as Mrs. Dole announced yesterday in Washington. She cited her inability to raise enough money to compete with Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the Republican nomination.
But for a time, Dole was considered the most serious challenger to Governor Bush in the Republican field, and early on ran a strong second to him in nationwide polls of Republican voters. At August's Iowa straw poll, she placed a credible third of nine candidates.
Though now out of the running, her impact will likely be felt for a long time to come. "She broke the glass ceiling of presidential politics," says Ari Fleischer, her former communications director. "She's paved the way for the next woman who wants to run, and has set an example for women at all levels of politics."
Other Dole boosters are less sanguine, quietly wishing she had stuck it out a little longer, at least through the New Hampshire primaries Feb. 1.
In the end, the fact that she's a woman appeared both to help and hurt her candidacy. Women who had never been involved in politics were drawn to her events; some enlisted in her cause. Others could be heard grumbling at Republican events that it's not a "woman's place" to run for president. Any sexism on the part of voters is extremely difficult to smoke out, and likely wouldn't turn up in polls.
On balance, though, her gender likely was only a secondary factor in the success and failure of her candidacy. Her primary problem was that she failed to come anywhere near Bush in fund-raising: From July to September alone, Mrs. Dole raised $1 million to Bush's $20 million.
Dole's fund-raising woes were compounded by her relatively late entry into a contest that began earlier than any previous presidential campaign. In January of this year, she resigned her post as president of the American Red Cross, and then waited until March to announce formation of her exploratory committee.
Dole's biggest problem, analysts say, was a failure to make a compelling case for her candidacy. "It was a disappointing campaign," says Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. "It was searching for a rationale and a case to be made other than being a sort of serious female candidate."
On top of that, Dole competed for much of the same constituency that Bush did, with a moderately conservative message that could also pull in independents and Democrats. Her biggest "message" success came when she issued a plea for gun control - a move that put her name in the headlines, but likely cost her support among Republican primary voters, who tend to oppose gun control.
Dole's inexperience in elective politics also likely hurt her effort. Though quite practiced as a public speaker - including campaigning for her husband, Bob Dole, the GOP presidential nominee in 1996 - she had never run for office herself, and her inexperience showed. At times, she displayed a caution with the public and the press, limiting her time for casual schmoozing with both.
Her effort to vault straight to the presidency was based on her years of executive experience in Washington, first as a Cabinet member in three Republican administrations, then as eight-year president of the American Red Cross.
"I wonder whether her personality is suited to running," says political analyst Charles Cook. At events, she'd answer basic questions with "I'll have to look into that.... She hated winging it."
Still, she was a credible enough candidate to remain on some pundits' short list of vice-presidential possibilities. But even there, she may have problems: If Bush is the nominee, he won't need Dole to pull in women voters, because he's already strong with women. She also doesn't fill in his gap in foreign-policy experience.
Dole's withdrawal shifts the dynamic of the GOP nomination race, giving the biggest boost to Bush himself and to Arizona Sen. John McCain, the other centrist candidate. "It now may make McCain the major opponent," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "The others are off on the right and fighting for that piece of it."
Two remaining GOP candidates with a corps of followers are publisher Steve Forbes and Christian activist Gary Bauer. Populist firebrand Pat Buchanan is expected to quit the Republican Party on Monday to seek the Reform Party's presidential nomination.
*Staff writers Francine Kiefer and James N. Thurman contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society