WASHINGTON — Elizabeth Hanford Dole, the highest-ranking woman in the Reagan Administration, Monday announced her resignation as secretary of transportation to work full time on the presidential campaign of her husband, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
The secretary and White House officials said that she had not been pressured to leave, but her departure has been expected for some time.
The Dole campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has been placing increasing demands on her time, and she was becoming more vulnerable to possible questions about her attentiveness to the agency at a time when it is embroiled in controversies over aviation safety and flight delays.
"There is no way that I can put the Department of Transportation first and get all of that (her campaign schedule) done," she said. "I have always put the department first. Now, I want to put the campaign first."
Mrs. Dole's resignation is effective Oct. 1. She said, after meeting briefly with President Reagan in the Oval Office Monday morning, that she felt it was time to respond to "pressure from major supporters and people in the campaign" to get on board full time.
Sen. Dole is expected to formally announce his candidacy within the next two months. He and Vice President George Bush are widely considered the front-runners for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination.
The 51-year-old transportation secretary leaves her post after nearly five years, the longest tenure of anyone in that post since it was created by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. She has overseen the federal sale of Conrail, the government's freight railroad, and has played a high-profile role in the examination of aviation safety and airline service complaints in the wake of the industry's deregulation.
According to a senior White House official, among those whose names surfaced on Monday as possible replacements were Patricia Goldman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, and three defeated Republican Senate candidates: James T. Broyhill of North Carolina, Mack Mattingly of Georgia and Paula Hawkins of Florida. But, he said, other names were also being raised and no decision is imminent.
As a highly regarded campaigner, she now will shift her attention to a campaign trip through 12 Southern states and the opening of a regional campaign office in Charlotte, N. C., to promote her husband's efforts prior to the March 8 Super Tuesday primary elections in the South.
Standing at his wife's side, Sen. Dole, leader of the Senate's Republican minority, said in the White House driveway: "She is probably the greatest resource in my campaign, and it's going to be very helpful to me, and I appreciate what she's done." He attended the Oval Office meeting.
Pressure on Mrs. Dole to make a decision grew in recent days after a stepped-up schedule of political appearances in August. She said she spent nine working days on the campaign during the last month, "which was my vacation time."
The senator acknowledged that, while he was campaigning last weekend in Iowa, several women told him they believed it was unfair that his wife should feel forced to give up her job to help him promote his career.
"It's her decision. She knows she's going to be spending a lot of time in the campaign," he said. "I told her it was a judgment she had to make."
He pointed out that in 1979, in his unsuccessful bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, his wife left her job as a member of the Federal Trade Commission. As transportation secretary, she was the only woman in the Reagan Cabinet.
In a letter made public later in the day by the White House, Reagan, who has remained neutral in the race for the 1988 Republican nomination, said he recognized the difficulty of her decision and praised her for her service to his Administration.
"No one knows better than I the challenge of making a government respond to the conservative mandate of 1980. You have been invaluable in that struggle."
He said the reasons behind her departure "will strike a chord with everyone who values the very human emotions that underlie public life at its finest."