ST. PAUL, Minn. — Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole was telling another joke. It was the one about the five farmers who sat in the front row at one of his campaign events. On each of their hats was written: "Dump Dole."
"I put them down as undecided," Dole quipped. As usual, he got a pretty good laugh.
Dole, the Kansas senator who is chasing Vice President George Bush for the Republican nomination, is telling a lot of jokes on himself these days.
It is a disarming touch, wry self-deprecation from a candidate once renowned for his nastiness. Moreover, it segues nicely into one of Dole's main messages these days--compassion for poor, elderly and disabled people.
The humor is also useful in deflecting a question that goes to the heart of Dole's seemingly contradictory agenda: How does a staunch conservative, who promises to attack the deficit by freezing most federal spending, simultaneously plan to ease the pain of hungry and homeless people, upgrade education, improve child care and reform long-term health care, all of which he pledges to do?
The yin and yang of Bob Dole has perplexed audiences who remember his vindictive campaign style during the 1976 vice presidential campaign and who are aware of a voting record in Congress that puts him to the right of 80% of his congressional colleagues.
Are there two Bob Doles, one nasty and one nice, one conservative and one liberal? he was asked during a recent television interview.
"You have to play a role, whatever you are, Democrat or Republican," Dole replied.
In 1976, as President Gerald R. Ford's running mate, he said he was asked to play an uncharacteristically combative role. "I was the heavy, and I didn't shrink from it.
"I must say, I didn't think that was the real Bob Dole. I really believe now that I can set the tone. I'm the candidate, not the running mate. What I do and say is the real Bob Dole, where I am on the issues and what my record is."
Dole says he is still a conservative and says he does not see any contradiction between his philosophy of government and the social policies he is advocating.
"I believe I'm a good conservative Republican. I understand the need for government restraint. But I also understand we have an obligation to some people who are down and out or who are left out. Maybe, they get food stamps. . . . Maybe, they're cold. Maybe they're hungry. But, in America, we're going to provide for people who can't do it themselves."
Attempt to Pin Down Views
The role Dole is playing now, whether it is the real Bob Dole or some other fellow, continues to leave liberals and conservatives a bit confused as they try to pin down his views on a number of important subjects.
On Nicaragua, for example, Dole says he does not trust President Daniel Ortega, but he is also critical of the Contra leadership.
"I get a little troubled by the people living in plush hotels in Miami, saying we ought to send more money so that 18- and 19-year-olds can go out and fight. I believe in the freedom fighters and I support the policy, but I still have reservations."
He can be equally equivocal about South Africa. "I think apartheid is repugnant, but I'm not so certain sanctions are a good policy," he says.
In one breath, he can sound both bullish and skeptical about the Strategic Defense Initiative, the proposed space-based missile-defense system, saying he would deploy it "as soon as there is something to deploy."
Series of Bills Deplored
At one campaign stop in Iowa, Dole deplored a series of bills being sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) that would impose a variety of new responsibilities on private employers, from granting workers parental leave to raising the minimum wage.
"It's called mandated benefits . . . higher minimum wage, parental leave. . . . It all sounds great unless you are trying to keep your business together," Dole said.
During another speech, however, he struck a slightly different chord.
"I might be willing to increase the minimum wage a little if we had a youth differential," he said, referring to an escape clause that would allow the hiring of young people at a lower wage.
Dole says that reducing the deficit will be the first order of business if he is elected President. He says his opening salvo will be a spending freeze that will cut the deficit by $150 billion over three years.
At the same time, he is clearly not ready to say how he plans to freeze spending and pay for the social programs he is talking about.
'Got to Have a Concept'
"We'll tell you in due time. We're not going to give you every blueprint. A freeze is fairly specific. There are probably eight or 10 or 15 options that you could work on. . . . I hope to have a pretty good idea, a specific idea. But first you got to have a concept. You got to deal in concepts. I'm not running for the Senate. I'm running for President. And my concept is fairness; my concept is a freeze. My concept is reduced spending. We'll dot the i's and cross the t's in due time," Dole said.