MERRIMACK, N.H. — Bob Dole does not yell or scream when he gets mad. Instead, those who know him say, he gets quiet.
Tuesday night, he was quiet.
Not silent, to be sure, but subdued. He sat in his hotel suite here watching the disappointing vote totals roll across the television and softly vowed, in effect: "No more Mr. Nice Guy."
"I'm going to straighten out my record," Dole declared, claiming he was the victim of lies by Vice President George Bush, who won the vote. "It won't take long . . . there's nothing wrong with being aggressive."
His warning amounted to a call for Republicans to fasten their seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy ride as the Republican presidential battle featuring front-runners Bush and Dole moves south for the March 8 round of Super Tuesday primaries.
After soundly defeating Bush in last week's Iowa caucuses, Dole put a muzzle on the slashing wit he has come to be known for as the Senate Republican leader. It was part of a deliberate strategy by Dole to appear statesmanlike as polls had showed him chipping away rapidly at the vice president's once commanding lead here.
Ignored Bush Ads
After the vote, Dole blamed his loss on a weekend media blitz by Bush that attacked the senator as an advocate of tax hikes and an oil import fee--two highly volatile issues in New England. Dole ignored the ads instead of rebutting them, an approach he admitted Tuesday was a mistake that would never be repeated.
"I think its unfortunate that the vice president of the United States, who knows better, in desperation would stoop to that level," Dole said. "He knows it's false on its face and he'll have an opportunity to answer that from now on."
Despite the tough talk, the results were clearly a setback for a campaign which saw victory within its grasp. By election eve, Dole had pulled even with Bush in the polls and Dole staffers seemed almost giddy over their prospects. Overnight, however, the polls turned sour and the bubble visibly burst as the voting began.
Dole had scheduled a full day of handshaking outside polling booths. But after a few stops in the morning, he scrubbed the remainder of the schedule.
He spent the afternoon nervously pacing the halls outside his fourth floor suite in the Hilton hotel. "He never is still," said a top aide. "He's sort of a whirling dervish."
Though they were disappointed in the results, Dole strategists chose to look at the glass as half full. Tom Rath, a senior adviser to Dole, said Bush enjoyed a 20-percentage-point lead in the polls less than two weeks ago and should have done much better Tuesday. "Here's a man who should have had the nomination in his hip pocket by now but he doesn't," Rath said.
Another top Dole consultant, David Keene, claimed Bush "had to blow us away" to do serious damage to the Dole candidacy. "We've just got to put the stake in him somewhere else," Keene said.
For his part, Dole insisted he was not discouraged. "Obviously you'd rather win but this is one step along the road," he said. "It makes the climb a little steeper but it doesn't make it impossible. Had we won? Spectacular. We almost won. Good. We're ready for the next challenge."