ATLANTA — High above the Chattahoochee River in a handsome house built to remind people of the old South, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, speaking in a broad Southern accent, talked about feminism in a way that might have appealed to a cotton planter's wife.
She was explaining to a rapt audience of 400 women why she gave up a Cabinet post in order to campaign full-time for her husband, Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who is running for President.
"I think what we women have been fighting for is the right to make our own choices to determine what we think is best for us. Mine was such a choice. It was something I wanted very much to do and which I am committed to do because I believe so strongly in Bob Dole."
Then, after she reviewed the highlights of a career serving five presidents and after the cheering and clapping subsided, Elizabeth (Liddy) Dole, who was impeccably clad in a pink and black jacket-dress, repeated one of the little asides that makes her seem a bit more like one of the girls.
"You know, I'm traveling non-stop for weeks, and, all that time, I'll be living out of one little hanging bag. Can you imagine that? It's got to be the single greatest challenge of the campaign."
For now, Elizabeth Dole is Bob Dole's Southern strategy. Challenged elsewhere, her decision to put her husband's career first has enhanced her reputation here as a woman worth listening to.
"I like her a lot," said Mary Jean Yates, after listening to Dole in Atlanta. "It's her beauty, her poise, her ability to move well in a man's world. She has shown her ability to make it but still chose to support her husband."
Stresses Affinity to Area
A native of North Carolina, Dole enjoys capitalizing on her affinity with the region.
"It sure is nice to be with people where I don't need an interpreter," she drawls to audiences that reward her with laughter and occasional rebel yells.
With her husband spending most of his time in Iowa and New Hampshire, Elizabeth Dole is striving to reach voters in the 14 Southern states that will take part in the March 8 Super Tuesday primary. Nearly 30% of the delegates to the Republican National Convention will be chosen in the South on that day.
The Doles are casting a wide net, as they try to build a coalition of moderate to conservative voters, including women, disenchanted Democrats and even some blacks. Elizabeth Dole hopes to appeal to people both in and out of the Republican mainstream by extolling her husband's sensitivity to human hardship and by emphasizing his leadership skills as the Senate's ranking Republican.
But first, Dole reminds people of her own credentials.
She starts her speeches by cataloguing her accomplishments as secretary of transportation-- deregulating the airline industry, selling Conrail to private investors, requiring random drug testing of government employees responsible for transportation safety, and presiding over "three of the safest years in airline travel".
Becomes Proud Wife
Sometimes, she talks more about her own record than her husband's. But when she does get around to Bob Dole, her approach is quite personal. She becomes the proud wife, as she reveals poignant details of Dole's nearly fatal injury in World War II and his three-year ordeal in a hospital to recuperate and resume a normal life without the use of one arm.
"He went through such terrible adversity that I feel that there is no question of his sensitivity to the problems and suffering of other people," she concludes.
Equally effusive about her husband's 27-year record in Congress, Dole says "I am truly in awe of his problem-solving abilities."
The hope is that people will take those words to heart because they are coming from a woman of substance.
After she spoke at a GOP fund-raiser in Savannah, the audience was abuzz with superlatives.
"She is a brilliant woman. . . . I had no idea. . . . She's got my vote. . . . I think they are running the wrong Dole. . . . "
Such high praise begs an important question. Will the enthusiasm for the candidate's wife translate into votes for the candidate?
"I don't know the answer to that," Elizabeth Dole herself said recently.
In Atlanta, two women who heard her speak said they wanted her to be George Bush's running mate.
Diane Harvey Johnson, a black state legislator from Savannah and a Democrat, attended a small reception for Elizabeth Dole and made it clear that her affection for the Dole family did not extend beyond the former secretary of transportation.
"What he is, and what she is are two different things," Johnson said. "I don't want to see Mr. Dole in the White House, but I can't say I feel that way about Mrs. Dole."
Elizabeth Dole was born in 1936 to a family with money and to a society where a woman's political ambitions did not often extend beyond membership in the Colonial Dames or the Daughters of the American Revolution. She went a lot further, graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Duke and earning a law degree from Harvard.