RUSSELL, Kan. — Kansas Sen. Bob Dole returned to his roots in the Midwestern heartland Monday to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination and to pronounce the federal budget deficit to be "the single greatest threat" to the nation's economic health.
Wearing a gray topcoat against the chill of the November morning, Dole made his declaration before several thousand enthusiastic supporters at an outdoor rally on Main Street in this town of about 5,000 where he was born and reared--and to which he returned to recover from the combat wounds he suffered in World War II.
High school bands played, and blue and yellow balloons soared into the bright sky as Dole pledged to draw on "the strength and determination molded in America's small-town heartland" to develop "common sense" solutions to the problems facing the nation.
Dole, regarded as the chief rival to Vice President George Bush, the front-runner in the GOP competition, sought to link himself with previous heartland presidents--among whom he cited Abraham Lincoln, Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan. One of their common traits, he asserted, was "plain speaking."
But in addressing these issues in his 30-minute announcement speech, Dole's remarks at times were cloaked in what seemed to be calculated ambiguity.
"The federal budget deficit is the single greatest threat to a prosperous and dynamic America," Dole said bluntly.
And he pledged to "tackle the runaway federal budget deficit without raising tax rates."
But, as his campaign communications director Mari Maseng acknowledged, this promise is applied only to income tax rates, and it would not rule out tinkering with the tax code to close alleged loopholes, or other measures to raise revenues including user fees or increases in excise taxes.
Dole indicated that much of the deficit reduction he hopes to accomplish--apart from what could be achieved by constitutional amendments requiring a balanced budget and giving the President line-item veto power--would come from cuts in federal spending.
But he did not say where these cuts would come from. Although he said "no area of federal spending will be off-limits," he added the exception of "programs to assist vulnerable Americans."
Dole also did not state which Americans would fit into the vulnerable category, but Maseng said he meant citizens in lower-income groups.
Dole was similarly elliptical in discussing national security issues, notably the proposed treaty banning intermediate-range missiles, which Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev is scheduled to come to the United States next month to sign along with President Reagan.
The treaty has become a focal point of debate among the six Republican presidential candidates, with Bush supporting it wholeheartedly, most of the others opposing it and Dole withholding judgment until the final language of the treaty is known.
Dole said here, as he has said before, that any such treaty had to provide for adequate verification, assure firm compliance and bolster the NATO alliance. But he also added what appeared to be a new qualification for his support. "Any treaty must also be accompanied by a restored balance of conventional forces in Europe," he said.
But Maseng told reporters that this did not mean Dole would insist on a balance of forces agreement being an integral part of the treaty for him to approve it. She said he would be satisfied by a "commitment" to achieve a balance of forces.
Shots at Front-Runner
For all his speech's generally lofty tone, Dole managed to squeeze in a couple of not-so-subtle shots at front-runner Bush.
"I offer a record, not a resume," he declared, an allusion to the long list of positions that Bush has held but which Dole supporters contend have not provided much in the way of experience.
Dole also referred to his "consistent and lifelong effort to protect the rights of the unborn"--an apparent reference to Bush's position against abortion, which critics contend became stronger after he became Reagan's vice president.
After his speech in Russell, Dole flew to make similar addresses in two early and critical 1988 battleground states--Iowa, which holds its caucuses next Feb. 8, and New Hampshire, site of the nation's first presidential primary Feb. 16.
Iowa is of great strategic importance to Dole's candidacy. One of the main reasons he is regarded as Bush's toughest competitor is because of his reputed strength in that state.
"All roads lead to Iowa," Dole told supporters here Sunday night at a rally. "If I can win in Iowa, then I think we're on the way to a big, big victory up and down the line."
And in Iowa, where he addressed several hundred supporters at a farm near Des Moines, Dole underlined the importance of the state even more. "Whoever wins in Iowa is probably going to be the next President of the United States," he said.