Jumping ship

Bob Dole clears the decks to try to save his campaign

Published May 15, 1996 11:03AM (EDT)

His advisers for weeks had been urging him to cut back on his Senate responsibilities and concentrate more on his troubled presidential campaign. But Sen. Bob Dole's announcement Wednesday that he was not only stepping aside as majority leader but also resigning his Senate seat came as a bombshell. One Dole aide said the development, which caught almost everybody off-guard, represents "the start of a sprint to the White House."

What does Dole's dramatic move do for him and his election chances? We spoke to political reporter Richard Ben Cramer, author of "Bob Dole" (Vintage, 1995), a biography excerpted from his acclaimed presidential campaign book, "What It Takes: The Way to the White House" (Vintage, 1993).

Did Dole's announcement surprise you as much as everyone on Capitol Hill?

Yes. I thought the only way Bob Dole would leave the Senate would be to be carried out feet first.

Some might see it as the move of a desperate candidate who is 20 points behind his rival.

There's a certain desperation when you're running out of time and you're 20 points behind. Yes, it's time to pay attention, and yes, it's maybe time to give up everything else. In that sense, a bit of desperation is warranted.

How does quitting the Senate help him?

It's good for him. Not only does it give more time to run his campaign, but it frees him to be himself in a way that the Senate majority leader cannot be.

What is "himself"? Most of us see him as the quintessential legislative mechanic with little vision. At one point he said he told Republicans he would be "anyone you want me to be" to get the nomination.

Dole came to Washington as an eager, partisan Republican who thought carrying the message and the principles of his party was important enough to give up anything for. That's why he propelled himself into this mechanic's position. His move today plays to that younger, more energetic Bob Dole -- a mainstream, balanced-budget Republican that people might find much more attractive than the Brooks-Brothers-suit and tassel-loafer insider that Dole became as a legislative leader.

What other issues than the balanced budget will we now hear Dole emphasizing?

More hands-off government; very business friendly; full employment. The kind of Republicanism that he grew up with on the Plains and that really was the heart of the Republican party when Dole came to Washington in 1960.

But won't the opposition be able to hang some of Dole's more recent positions around his neck -- his embrace of the anti-abortion plank, and his pledge to repeal the ban on assault weapons?

They'll all be brought up. The politics of attaining the Republican nomination are quite scary; you have to make sure that no one can outflank you to the right on a host of issues that are very contentious and very narrow. I always found Dole to be much more attractive as a person than the politics he sometimes espoused. But if Dole can now concentrate on speaking from his own heart, his own tradition, then he can free himself to be the much more attractive candidate that he can be. And he may connect much better with the American public.

Apart from "attractive," you use words like "younger" and "energetic." But, he's 72, which is one of the quieter campaign issues not in his favor. Will he be as vigorous as he needs to appear on the campaign trail?

Dole has no problem with vigor. He can run you and me into the ground before breakfast. Whether he can communicate that is another issue.

His campaign speeches so far have been unexciting, sometimes even incoherent, and he's been constantly outmaneuvered by the Clinton White House.

There was a built in conflict to the life Dole has lived for the last few months. As a presidential candidate, he's supposed to speak to his own passions and vision. As legislative leader he was supposed to speak for a whole set of concerns that are not necessarily his own. He was in fact supposed to submerge his own interests to those of his party and his fellow senators. In that sense, he could not have been clear. Now whether he can do it without his Senate title is another matter, because he is not an electrifying orator. But I think he's got a much better chance when he's working only for himself.

Can he carry his party's fractious elements, like the House freshmen, with him in this more mainstream direction?

I wouldn't worry too much about the freshmen. Personally I wouldn't let them change my tire. Besides, the single-issue right wing of the Republican party has nowhere else to go. Dole has assured himself that there won't be a Buchananist third party, and so where are they going to go -- to Bill Clinton?

He's been urged by any number of pundits and advisers to stress his "personal story" -- the war wounds and so on -- which Dole has always been reluctant to do. Is it really a good idea, or will it be regarded as a cynical switch?

There's a certain amount of cynicism attached to anything a candidate says about himself. But to the extent that his story is known, it will rebound to Dole's advantage, because it's an unbelievable American story: a kid who literally couldn't walk, couldn't feed himself, had a vision of himself spending his life selling pencils on Main Street in Russell, Kansas, working himself -- hauling himself -- back to the point where he has a chance to enter the White House. That's a hell of a story.

Still, with six months to go, and so far behind in the polls, is it too late for Dole?

No, I don't think so at all. There's plenty of time. But, bottom line, the election is Bill Clinton's to lose. When you have the country at peace, the economy not totally down the toilet, the markets at a record high, people working, it's very hard to throw out an incumbent president. Any candidate would have a hard time unseating Bill Clinton.

Quote of the day

The NFL's occupational hazards

"He realized that normal, healthy people don't have seizures."

-- Dr. John Gray, the Green Bay Packers' associate team physician, on the admission by quarterback Brent Favre that he had become addicted to painkillers after suffering numerous injuries and undergoing multiple surgeries. Favre, who has never missed a game due to injury in his five seasons with the Packers, suffered a seizure in the hospital while his ankle was being operated on.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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