WASHINGTON — There's agreement in Washington that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) has already enjoyed one of the most important public image transformations of the last decade. He has metamorphosed from 1976's much-criticized Republican vice presidential candidate- cum -hatchet man into a leading policy-maker, spotlighted by one news magazine as the "hot" emerging challenger to Vice President George Bush for the 1988 GOP presidential nomination. Which leads to another question: Could Dole go all the way?
It won't be easy. But while the senator from Kansas was once the incipient Rodney Dangerfield of the wheat belt, the current measure of his respect was underscored by the million-dollar receipts from a Washington reception he recently gave to help his Dole Foundation for Employment of Persons with Disabilities. Dole's interest in the disabilities of others basically grows out of his own: He has little use of his right arm, shattered in World War II. But because of the majority leader's influence, crowds of power brokers have lined up to finance a foundation that essentially gives grants to help crippled children. It's part of the changing perception of Dole. Press reports even evoke analogies to Franklin D. Roosevelt and his role in the March of Dimes.
Yet, despite the growing belief among political insiders that a matured Dole could make a good President, few think fate will deal him the chance. To begin with, Dole's current, second-place standing in most Republican preference polls is more marginal than solid. Bush is far ahead, and Dole's 10%-15% puts him second largely because the other two major contenders--former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. and Rep. Jack Kemp of New York--have been sagging. Then there's the bad precedent of Dole's 1976 vice presidential defeat, followed by his inept 1980 bid for the GOP presidential nomination. Second-place nominees on a losing national ticket may make personal and professional comebacks, but it's rare that they convince their party to give them another nomination, this time for the presidency.
Which brings us to what is at once Dole's 1988 launching pad and his prime 1988 obstacle--his GOP Senate leadership. Ironically, the turnaround in Dole's fortunes dates from the emergence of Ronald Reagan in 1980. First came the Reagan landslide, with its corollary of the first Republican Senate in a generation. Then, as the post-1981 context of Washington politics began to lurch to the right, Dole, whose 1976 conservatism had seemed abrasive, was perceived as a centrist. Dole himself changed--his bitter partisanship ebbed as his self-confidence grew. But, in addition, a new generation of zealots and abstractionists took conservatism too far right for a farm-belt pragmatist, whatever his prior combativeness. Finally, the GOP's new majority circumstances showcased Dole's legislative talents. Seniority made him Senate Finance Committee chairman, a position he soon parlayed into leadership of the Republican Party's fiscal-responsibility wing. If Dole's willingness to support tax increases in 1982 and 1984 made him enemies on the supply-side ideological right, it gave him stature among hitherto skeptical Establishment constituencies.
Come December, 1984, Dole's success in winning the Senate Republican majority leader's post boosted him to a larger platform. And during the spring and summer of 1985, he used it to carve out a profile of dissent from Reagan Administration budget-deficit nonchalance. That helped him in the polls. Indeed, from an institutional standpoint, captaincy of the centrist Republican forces on Capitol Hill during the Reagan Era seems to have worked to position the Senate party leader--first Baker, then Dole--to emerge as a prime presidential contender and moderate GOP rallying point.
Since Baker retired in 1984 (ironically, to concentrate on running for President), Dole is the one who has climbed in the polls--to a point where Baker's candidacy is in some doubt. Meanwhile, there are already signs that televising the Senate has given Dole a benefit no prior majority leader ever enjoyed.
The problem is that no one should overstate the usefulness of the Senate majority leadership as a presidential launching pad. Pre-television, it wasn't one. Occupants were positioned, but not launched. Lyndon B. Johnson's success in going from Senate majority leader in 1960 to vice president in 1961 and then President on the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963 is a half-exception. Texas geography got him on the ticket, not his mediocre showings in polls. And an assassin's bullet made him President.