WASHINGTON — Two 1988 presidential contenders, Republican Senate leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Tuesday announced the formation of exploratory committees that will lay the groundwork for their expected campaigns for the White House.
The committee for Dole, whom polls show to be the chief challenger to Vice President George Bush for his party's nomination, will be headed by a longtime friend, Robert Ellsworth, a former Kansas congressman who was involved in the 1968 Richard M. Nixon campaign and later served in the Nixon Administration as ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Race 'Wide Open'
"I think the Republican race is wide open," Ellsworth said at a press conference here, although he acknowledged that Bush is still the front-runner, as he has been from the start. "He (Bush) has been hurt by Iran, but I assume his popularity will come back up again and he will be a tough competitor."
Meanwhile, he said, as the approach of the 1988 campaign has focused attention on Dole, "the more people look at him (Dole), the more seriously they take him as a possible President."
Ellsworth said he hopes that Dole will get some help from Republicans who previously had been inclined to back former Tennessee Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., who scrapped his plans to run for the nomination when he accepted President Reagan's appointment as White House chief of staff last week.
To Keep Senate Post
The 63-year-old Dole will retain his post as Senate minority leader, at least for the present, Ellsworth said. He indicated, however, that the senator would consider stepping down from that job if the time demands of campaigning become too great.
Ellsworth said that no decision has been made about when Dole will announce his candidacy formally. Until Dole makes a formal announcement, Ellsworth said, the exploratory committee will observe the same federal financial restrictions and reporting requirements as would a campaign committee.
Other 1988 Republican contenders are New York Rep. Jack Kemp and television evangelist Pat Robertson--both of whom, like Bush and Dole, have exploratory committees--former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. du Pont IV, who formally announced his candidacy last year, and former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., who is expected to declare his candidacy at a dinner in New York March 23 and at a press conference the next day.
By filing papers for his committee with the Federal Election Commission Tuesday, the 44-year-old Biden, in his third Senate term, appears to have ended a period of uncertainty about whether he would run. "At this point, he has every expectation of being a candidate for President," Press Secretary Peter Smith said.
For the present, Biden will retain his post as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Smith said that Valerie Biden Owens, Biden's sister, who has managed his campaigns for the Senate, would manage his presidential campaign.
Biden's rivals for the Democratic nomination include Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who announced his candidacy last week, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who is expected to announce next week, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, who is expected to announce next month, and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.
In addition, Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis are considering entering the race and are expected to make their decisions known within the next two weeks.