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'88 Presidential Ambitions Riding on Senate Races : Dole Has Most to Lose in Elections

November 01, 1986|SARA FRITZ | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — He is virtually certain of being reelected to the Senate from his home state of Kansas, and yet Majority Leader Bob Dole is the one politician with the most to lose in Tuesday's election.

If the Republicans fail to retain majority control of the Senate, Dole would not only be forced to relinquish the title and perquisites of majority leader, he would also lose the national platform that he hopes will catapult him into the 1988 GOP presidential nomination.

Although some of his advisers believe that his presidential campaign would survive such a setback, Dole himself believes that his chances of winning the nomination would be severely diminished.

"Many people think if it happens and I'm minority leader, I would have a lot more latitude," he said in an interview. "I don't agree with that."

Adept at Use of Power

On the other hand, if the Republicans continue to rule the Senate, Dole already has demonstrated that he knows how to use the power of the majority leader to his political advantage.

In the Senate, where his leadership over the last two years has won high praise on both sides of the aisle, Dole has often used his position to champion legislation sought by those conservative Republicans whose support he will need to become the GOP presidential nominee.

Dole also has campaigned tirelessly for other Republicans seeking reelection this year, and in the process has furthered his own presidential ambitions--making friends with influential party leaders around the country, currying favor with special interests and building a skeletal professional campaign staff that will be in place when the presidential sweepstakes get under way next year.

During a recent campaign appearance here on behalf of Sen. Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.), it was clear that Dole was campaigning as much for himself as for Mattingly. He met privately with his supporters and beamed with satisfaction when he was introduced by Mattingly as one of the three top contenders (along with Vice President George Bush and GOP Rep. Jack Kemp of New York) for the party's presidential nomination.

Ran With Ford in 1976

At 63, Dole is recognized among his peers as one of the cleverest, most skillful politicians in the nation today. His resume includes eight years in the House, 17 years in the Senate, an unpleasant experience as President Gerald R. Ford's running mate in 1976 and a short-lived effort to win the presidential nomination in 1980.

Ever since 1980, Dole has plotted his comeback campaign by trying to capitalize on the positives--his World War II war record, his long history as a supporter of American agriculture and even the Southern roots of his wife, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole.

At the same time, he has played down the things that hurt him six years ago, including an image as a moderate and his reputation as a vicious-tongued "hatchet man" that he developed while stumping for Ford in 1976.

"A lot (of support) has developed in the past six years--in the business community, the farmers, the veterans," he said. "Obviously, Elizabeth is a big asset. She has a big following."

In fact, Dole and his wife are so popular in Republican circles that the two of them now can raise $100,000 in a single evening simply by inviting 20 GOP contributors to have dinner with them at $5,000 a plate. And, as Dole observes: "$100,000 is nothing to sneeze at."

'Cautious About Prospects'

Despite his popularity, Dole is very cautious about his prospects in 1988. "I think there is a lot of interest," he said. "But I don't know whether we can put it together."

He acknowledges that Bush has the support of the Republican leadership "locked up" in most regions of the country. He sees himself competing with Kemp and evangelist Pat Robertson for the loyalty of conservatives and hoping for Bush to stumble in the early primary battles.

Political analysts such as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute think Dole has a chance of displacing the others, but only if he can keep control of his sharp-edged sense of humor. As Ornstein puts it: "Dole is a congenital smart-ass."

It is ironic that Dole now sees the job of majority leader as a key factor in his bid for higher office. When he was elected majority leader two years ago, skeptics predicted that the burdens of the position would destroy Dole's presidential prospects. His predecessor as majority leader, Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), had resigned to pursue the presidency.

But even Dole's political opponents now admit that the position has given him an opportunity to demonstrate his unusual leadership skill. "I think he's been an effective majority leader," said Assistant Minority Leader Alan Cranston (D-Calif.).

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