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Draws on Hometown Symbolism : Dole Campaign Stresses an All-American Image

November 15, 1987|ROBERT SHOGAN | Times Political Writer

RUSSELL, Kan. — Before Sen. Bob Dole officially announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination last week here in Russell, the town where he grew up, some of his advisers questioned the need to stage that event in this remote little community tucked away in northern Kansas.

But Dole's senior political consultant, Don Devine, had a ready answer, another aide recalled. "Face it," he said, "we're running Russell, Kan., for President."

Amid the warmth and enthusiasm generated by Russell's 5,000 citizens and carried over in part to the rest of Dole's three-day campaign kickoff tour, it was easy to see the benefits that Dole's Russell roots bring to his candidacy.

All this seems far removed from the hard-driving, hard-bitten Republican Senate leader, who is viewed with mistrust and sometimes distaste even by some of those who admire his skills. But his strategists believe they can present a more positive picture of candidate Dole by focusing on the little town where his family struggled through the bitter times of the 1930s.

Russell--where the young Dole jerked sodas in the drugstore and earned letters on the high school track, basketball and football teams--is a paradigm of the sort of small town still idealized by many Americans, urban and rural alike.

Perhaps more important, Russell is the place to which wounded combat veteran Dole came home after World War II, his right arm and his youthful dreams shattered, and whose citizens helped him to restore his life.

"It's the sort of story Hollywood used to make movies of in the 1940s and 1950s," says University of Texas communications professor Kathleen Jamieson, a specialist in political rhetoric and symbolism.

And Dole and his advisers are confident that the old-fashioned script can still play very well in Peoria--and just about everywhere else in the country this campaign season.

The 64-year-old lawmaker's down-to-earth beginnings in Russell contrast favorably with the upper-crust origins of Vice President George Bush, the Republican front-runner, the senator's advisers believe.

They also believe that public understanding of the hard times Dole endured there, during the Great Depression and then after World War II, will help soften some of the sharp edges in the negative perception of his personality held by many who follow politics closely.

Small-Town Values

More generally, it is reasoned in the Dole camp that in a presidential campaign where candidate character traits seem to be much on the minds of the electorate, Dole's emphasis on the enduring small-town values typified by Russell can't help but work to his advantage.

The most direct benefit of Dole's relationship to Russell, as he and his aides see it, is the favorable juxtaposition it provides with Bush's background. Unlike the vice president--a senator's son, reared in New England amid the trappings of power and wealth who has adopted a new political home in Texas--Dole's origins are middle-class middle-American, and he still proudly claims his initial roots.

The message of his announcement speech in Russell, Dole said in an interview on his chartered Boeing 727 jet, is: "Here is a person who is successful and has a chance of being the next President and hasn't forgotten where he is from. That's a quality people like to see--that you don't forget where you're from."

Identification Factor

Moreover, Dole said, where he is from is "sort of what it's all about," a place with which most voters can readily identify.

"This is where it's at," Dole said. "You can go to cities and get the same cross-section of people." Then he added with an apparent allusion to Bush's affluent background: "You don't go to country clubs."

Many believe that perhaps even more important than the boost that Dole's links to Russell gives to his campaign against Bush is the help it provides him in dealing with another and possibly more formidable adversary: himself, or at least the unpleasant perception of himself that many political observers recall.

Most of these recollections are based on Dole's performance as President Gerald R. Ford's vice presidential running mate in the 1976 campaign. Dole was widely criticized for being excessively partisan and harsh, particularly in his nationally televised debate with his opposite number, Walter F. Mondale, in which he maligned his opponents' motives, referred to both world wars and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts as "Democrat wars," and was often snide and sarcastic.

Seen as Mean-Spirited

The negative impression left by that appearance--combined with the rhetorical savaging of Democrats in which Dole indulged as Republican national chairman in the early 1970s, and stories that he was an unreasonable taskmaster to his Senate staff--have fostered an impression among some Washington politicians and journalists of Dole as a mean-spirited figure, relentless in his ambition.

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