HANOVER, N.H. — In a colorful detour from this political season's bland campaign circuit, the front-running Republican presidential candidate, who has scolded the media for creating "nightmares of depravity," visited the original "Animal House" fraternity, then did a rolling, rock-style interview for the network that gave America Beavis and Butt-head.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's interview with MTV reporter Tabitha Soren marked the official beginning of the music channel's 1996 campaign coverage, and a pointed effort by the 72-year-old candidate to connect with the 18- to 24-year-old voting bloc that President Clinton has skillfully courted.
Dole's participation in the event illustrates the delicate path candidates tread if they try to woo young voters through popular media that some social conservatives find offensive--or worse. In the words of a Family Research Council official in Washington, MTV is "a cultural acid eating its way through American youth."
But Saturday's plunge into youth culture seemed to bring out the party animal in Dole.
The Kansas senator started the day at Dartmouth College's Alpha Delta Fraternity, a model for the infamously decadent fraternity in the movie "Animal House"--which Dole said he had watched the night before.
"It reminded me of the Congress," he deadpanned, cracking up a room packed with fraternity and sorority members. Modifying a line from the film--"Start drinking heavily"--Dole said: "It's time for you to start voting heavily."
About 700 people, mainly college students, gathered on a frozen lawn outside the fraternity in this quintessential Ivy League town. With music pounding from the speakers of MTV's video monitors before the event, and students answering questions about their politics through interactive electronic kiosks, the scene sometimes looked more like a stop on the Lollapalooza alternative-music tour than conservative politics as usual.
"It's almost perverse to have Hootie and the Blowfish playing in the background while Bob Dole speaks," said 18-year-old Rachel Derkits. "It's certainly not something George Washington would have foreseen."
Nor could the first president have envisioned a candidate conducting an interview while bouncing along on a 45-foot bus decorated with faux leopard-skin carpet, shattered-tile mosaic tables and velvet wallpaper that hints at a brothel motif.
The stated purpose of the nationwide bus tour is "raising voter awareness," and a representative from the nonprofit group Rock the Vote will travel with the MTV crew, registering young voters.
Painted in a red, white and blue deconstruction of the U.S. flag, the exterior of the bus is a visual echo of Jimi Hendrix's rendition of "the Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock. Overlaying the design is a graffiti-like scrawl of quotations from such thinkers as Alexis de Tocqueville, and Madonna: "Express yourself, don't repress yourself."
Before the bus hit the highway, Dole conducted a brief online cyber-chat with subscribers of America Online. Then, with a snowy landscape rolling by, Soren grilled him on the standard hard-news issues, including Bosnia, the flat tax, the assault-weapons ban and abortion.
On that question, Dole said he opposes late-term abortions even when the mother's life is at stake.
But many of Soren's questions focused on issues of particular interest to MTV's young audience, including jobs, the economy, the future of Social Security and Dole's attack on excessive sex and violence in music and movies.
Dole said he seldom watches MTV, preferring hard news.
And while repeating his position that America must return to decency, and that "shame is a powerful tool" for accomplishing that, he also volunteered that "you can't insulate young people. They've got to go out and take their risks."
As part of its "Choose or Lose" coverage, MTV plans to air interviews with Clinton as well as all or most of the Republican candidates, and has already taped less formal interviews with Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, commentator Patrick J. Buchanan and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.
But any participation with the network makes some social conservatives squirm.
Robert H. Knight, director of cultural studies for the Family Research Council in Washington, called MTV "one of the most destructive forces in our culture, peddling easy sex, drugs, alcohol abuse and rebellion against moral standards of any kind."
"I think its scary," he added, "that MTV, given its depraved content, has such clout that candidates feel they can't pass up this opportunity to reach so many young people."
Dole supporters and others have a different view. The senator should "communicate with every generation and group in America. I think you can do that without embracing their philosophy," said New Hampshire Gov. Steve Merrill, who is general chairman of Dole's campaign.