Is Elizabeth Dole really running for president?

While her husband talks openly about Viagra, she can't bring herself to declare her candidacy.

Topics: George W. Bush, Republican Party, John McCain, R-Ariz.,

There is a strange irony in the fact that Bob Dole has the “courage,” as he puts it, to go on television and talk about his erectile dysfunction, but his wife, Elizabeth, can’t bring herself to tell the nation that she is running for president. She came to San Jose Wednesday, the capital of Silicon Valley, to talk to the Rotary Club about “the endeavor upon which I’ve launched.” She referred to “pursuing this path,” “the rigorous process,” and said she was “looking forward to making history,” but in this age of Clintonian doublespeak, reporters and Rotarians alike walked away wondering if she was in this thing for real.

It wasn’t exactly a campaign speech. Dole did go through a lot of the motions of a presidential candidate — sprinting through a list of vague policy statements and embracing such cutting-edge political principles as “returning our public schools to greatness.” But on the day that Al Gore officially came out of his vice presidential cave to declare his candidacy and Texas Gov. George Bush was wrapping up a campaign swing through Iowa and New England, Dole remains a child perched at the top of a high dive — someone who still has the option of climbing back down the way she came instead of taking the plunge.

Dole did make clear that she’s not running for vice president. The question keeps coming up anyway — in part because Bush is running so far ahead in the early polls and early fund-raising, and maybe in part because of a kind of sexist assumption that a woman should aim for the second slot.

If Dole runs, the creators of our political lexicon are going to need to revise their terminology. “Stump speech” won’t apply to a woman whose most defining characteristic on the campaign trail is her now-trademarked and annoying “Dole stroll,” the political equivalent of a stage dive, in which she clips on a wireless mike and ambles through the audience as she speaks. The tactic makes Dole’s political events feel more like life-enhancement seminars than political rallies or fund-raisers.

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Clad in a peach suit and pearls, Dole went Oprah on the Rotary Club Wednesday, weaving through banquet tables, reminiscing about the time she donned leather and chains and rode a Harley on “The Tonight Show,” all in the name of love and putting Bob Dole in the White House. Dole’s routine is actually more late night infomercial than daytime talk show. Perhaps Tony Robbins is a closer parallel than Oprah for Dole’s choreographed efforts to step off the podium and feel our pain.

With her Southern drawl and saccharine-sweet delivery, Dole quickly ticked off a laundry list of her beliefs. She endorsed fast-track trade legislation, the admission of China into the World Trade Organization, allowing more visas for high-tech guest workers and increasing defense spending, and she vowed to do something about “those dern taxes.”

The speech was peppered with examples of an annoying Dole rhetorical tic, injecting questions into declarative statements, which makes her sound schoolmarmish and patronizing. In supporting the elimination of the research and development tax, Dole mused, “Research is just absolutely critical, isn’t it?” and “We want to do everything possible — don’t we? — to encourage that economic growth.”

There was a little substance to the speech. Dole reiterated her support for new gun restriction measures, policies that Dole dubs “crime control, not gun control,” including requiring trigger locks on guns, outlawing bullets that can pierce police body armor and banning assault weapons. Dole also helped establish herself as a moderate by saying she does not believe there should be a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees on the issue of abortion. Dole even offered a slight dig at the current GOP front-runner, championing what she called “courageous conservatism,” an obvious modification of the “compassionate conservatism” adopted by the Texas governor.

Dole also gave reporters a fine demonstration of her conflict resolution skills. After her speech, she was hounded by a small band of frustrated reporters who missed an earlier press conference because of a mix-up between Dole’s staff and the media. Instead of the standard political post-game walk-and-talk, in which candidates amble slowly toward their car with microphones in their face answering last-minute questions, Dole went toe-to-toe with a reporter explaining that she simply had to go.

Dole: “Bye, now. Take care.”

Reporter: “Mrs. Dole, will you accept …

Dole: “Let me, let me … We had a press availability before, and now I have to go …”

Reporter: “Well your staff …”

Dole: “You weren’t here? Were you here earlier?”

Reporter (Angry, shouting): “No, because your staff …”

Dole (placing her hands on the reporter’s hands): “OK, OK, take it easy. Blood pressure down. What’s your question?”

Still, Dole has the feel of a candidate testing the political winds. She said she has “directed my staff to make plans for the late summer,” regarding any big political announcement. The doubt cast on Dole’s political ambitions was piqued by Bob Dole’s confession to the New York Times that he may actually contribute money to the John McCain campaign. Soon after that interview, Dole’s chief campaign consultant, Kieran Mahoney, resigned. Dole says all of those signs have been misread by the press, and insists that it’s “all systems go” in her camp, even if she can’t bring herself to say those three little words, “I am running.”

Dole’s fund-raising efforts have been paltry to date in comparison to those of her potential rivals. In the last round of campaign filing reports, released in mid-April, Bush had raised $7.6 million while Dole had pulled in only $685,000, according to the Federal Election Commission. The next reports are set to be released at the end of the month, and could be a telling sign of whether or not Elizabeth Dole is for real.

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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