A flash of things to come?

Elizabeth Dole endorses the Bush bandwagon as it rolls into primary season. Is this a preview of the eventual GOP ticket?

Published January 4, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

If you can't beat him, join him. As expected, Elizabeth Dole on Tuesday threw her support behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush, her former rival for the Republican presidential nomination.

Dole's endorsement speech in New Hampshire hit all high notes in the "compassionate conservative" song book, praising the Texas governor's stands on education, taxes and Social Security. She also invoked his Gipperness, comparing Bush to another alleged dim-bulb Republican governor who "rode out of the west" 20 years ago. Ronald Reagan, Dole said, "made a career out of being underestimated."

Lately, of course, Bush's campaign has had to quiet concerns that their man had been overestimated early on. Dole's announcement comes after months of polls showing Arizona Sen. John McCain slowing Bush's momentum nationally, and overtaking him in New Hampshire, though a poll today shows that race narrowing. If Dole's endorsement helps refocus attention back on Bush's strengths -- his appeal to women and other traditional democratic voters -- it may help Bush blunt the McCain boomlet.

"It may be neutral, but it can't be bad," said Rich Galen, a Republican strategist and publisher of Mullings, an Internet political column. Galen believes that the timing of the Dole endorsement, after two weeks of the presidential race being pushed off the news page by Y2K stories, might end McCain's dark-horse bid for the nomination.

"I'd be interested to see if this brings Bush independent votes in New Hampshire that might have otherwise gone to McCain," he said. As for the effect on Arizona senator's chances in South Carolina, another early primary state, Galen said, "If he were making any headway, he ain't making it now."

Dole is the first former competitor whose support really matters to Bush. Thus far, with the exception of Dan Quayle, every Republican presidential drop-out has endorsed Bush. However, unlike Lamar Alexander and John Kaisch, for example, Dole consistently polled in the double digits before she left the race in October, and she beat both Bill Bradley and Al Gore in theoretical match-ups. Dole had also demonstrated grassroots appeal and organizational strength in a third place finish in the August Iowa straw poll.

This morning's announcement combined with Bush's comments welcoming Dole as "a general in my army" have revived talk of a possible Bush-Dole ticket. Though both sides say such talk is premature, Dole is considered a strong prospect for the vice presidential nod. After she left the race, 36 percent of voters surveyed by ABC said that a Bush ticket should include Dole as vice president. Her name on the ballot may also help Bush reverse the gender gap that has often plagued Republicans in general elections.

But political analyst Larry Sabato says that power of endorsement itself will be more evident in primary season. "In primaries," said Sabato, "voters don't have party identification to rely on when choosing a candidate. They're looking for other cues," and the endorsement of a party stalwart like Dole may be the signal those voters were waiting for.

Dole's greatest value to Bush is her proven ability to draw voter and press attention on the campaign trail, according to Candy Straight, a former Dole supporter and president of the WISH List, a group working to elect pro-choice Republican women. She says that the Dole endorsement is virtually meaningless without this added benefit. "People who drop out of races tend to endorse front-runners," Straight said, "but if she could go after women and independents, the voters that the Democrats go after, she'd be a great asset during the campaign, and maybe as a vice presidential nominee."

Galen concurs that Dole's campaign skills can broaden the Bush coalition. "She wasn't a very good candidate in her own right, but she really does attract people to peek under the tent."

Dole is scheduled to pitch her tent again today in Iowa where she'll repeat her new-found devotion to the Bush bandwagon.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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