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Winner of Bush-Rather Can Be Onlooker Bob Dole

The Running Arguments: A continuing series surveying the presidential campaign and candidates.

January 31, 1988|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as Walter F. Mondale's campaign manager in 1984

WASHINGTON — The person most affected by the Dan Rather-George Bush brouhaha on last Monday's "CBS Evening News" may have been the candidate not there--Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. By now Bush is being declared the winner on points and Rather the loser on tact. That may mean that Bush can no longer be called a wimp and Rather can no longer be called Cronkite. But for the fighter in the wings this preliminary tussle may prove only an immediate setback. For Dole, it may yet be the opportunity his troubled campaign has been seeking.

The Bush campaign is crowing over the good news. Their man finally got a chance to act tough. The bad news, however, is that it was the wrong issue--the Iran-Contra affair. Media and public overreaction to the event spell long-term trouble for him. The one issue Bush wanted to go away now certainly will not. Questions about Bush's involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal will grow larger.

For Dole, the Bush-Rather show at first appears to be a loss. Dole's campaign may have reduced the Republican contest to a two-man race, but it is in serious trouble. The organizational problems are by now legendary, yet they play second fiddle to the larger problem of a weak overall message from the candidate. Gone is "hatchet man" Dole from the 1976 and 1980 campaigns, replaced by a watered-down version created by his image men. By acting temperate, the "new" Dole faltered at the October "Firing Line" debate in Houston, allowing Bush to dump some of the wimpiness on him. The new Dole failed again on the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, hesitating to support it while claiming he needed to study the treaty text.

Polls showed overwhelming support for the treaty, and Dole came off as "waffling" instead of leading the charge as a tough champion of peace. Recently Dole has tried to emerge from his shell by initiating attacks on Bush. Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to challenge him on anything more significant than family wealth--an issue where Dole is himself suspect.

So what can Dole do to get through to the new "tough" Bush? Since it is too late to out-organize him and too late for a clear message, Dole must play the only card he has--the Iran-Contra issue. Rather's bloodied finger effectively pointed to the unanswered questions on the scandal and left the jugular exposed for Dole. The question is whether Dole will go for it. From what we have seen of his campaign, the instinct will be to play it safe. Leave it alone and hope Bush stumbles.

Such thinking is fatal. If Dole does not play this issue, he is asking for a loss. He must, in fact, seize the moment and let his old fighter instincts come out. Iowa is the best--and only--place to start. Conventional wisdom says the Rather-Bush fight helps Bush in Iowa. Wrong. Iowa Republicans are skeptical. Surveys have showed that they question the vice president's involvement with Iran-Contra more closely than voters elsewhere. Given Dole's popularity in Iowa, that's the perfect place to hit Bush on the issue--and hit hard. Dole can't play it in New Hampshire yet because of conservative approval for any sort of Rather-bashing. But Iowa is Dole country. He is down to a one-state campaign.

Dole needs a big win in Iowa to offset his organizational weaknesses and force a drawn-out fight with Bush. In a protracted battle, Dole can beat Bush. He must sharpen his tongue and hone his wit to challenge Bush's role in Iran-Contra. The future of Dole's candidacy depends on hardball tactics proving he is the party's most electable candidate--and that Bush is a loser. He will never get the chance to make this point if he doesn't take advantage of last week's Bush-Rather skirmish. It's time to let Dole be Dole

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