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Dole's Long Struggle Gets No Easier

February 20, 1996|ROBERT SHOGAN and SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

EXETER, N.H. — Everywhere he goes in these closing hours of the New Hampshire primary, thousands of balloons shower down upon him, banners wave and rock bands blare. But all the jubilation and hoopla belie the sober demeanor of the candidate and the somber realities confronting his campaign.

For this is no happy warrior parading through the hustings, no Hubert H. Humphrey nor Ronald Reagan. This is Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, a campaigner of mournful countenance in the best of times, made even grimmer by the fact that he is battling for the survival of presidential ambitions he has nurtured for 20 years, and is struggling still at this very late hour to define himself to the electorate.

Dole is still narrowly favored to win the nomination. But his perilous predicament in a contest in which the polls once gave him a huge lead is consistent with the hardscrabble route he has followed all his political life. "Here he is at what should be the biggest moment of his career," said David Carmen, a GOP consultant watching Dole speak in the Exeter high school gym. "And he winds up having to shoot his way out."

The tense environment in the Dole camp contrasts with the buoyancy that infuses the candidacy of Patrick J. Buchanan, whose conservative supporters here have put him roughly even with Dole in most opinion surveys. "This is too much fun," Buchanan exulted as Tuesday's decision day approached. "This is too much fun. We've got them all on the run."

Buchanan can afford to enjoy himself. If the polls have any validity at all, the former Nixon and Reagan White House aide seems assured of a strong finish. That will allow him to carry on his campaign elsewhere around the country, where he will presumably be able to draw on the party's conservative cadre, whose champion he has become.

But for Dole, the longtime front-runner for the nomination, expectations are higher, and the consequences of a possible defeat more severe. "You don't go to the White House unless you win New Hampshire," Dole said a few days ago.

Asked about that remark, he now tries to hedge. "I probably should have said, 'If Bob Dole wins New Hampshire, Bob Dole will be the nominee,' " he said over the weekend. "If we don't win New Hampshire we will win North and South Dakota"--both of which hold their caucuses a week after the New Hampshire vote.

Dole could have pointed out that Bill Clinton did not win the New Hampshire primary four years ago and yet, by casting himself as the "comeback kid," went to the White House anyway. But such quibbling can in no way mitigate the consequences of a defeat here for Dole. While he has the resources to continue his candidacy even if he fails to come in first, his supporters concede the symbolic impact would be severe.

"I don't want to be around if New Hampshire kicks him in the teeth on Tuesday," said David Carney, the chief strategist for Dole's campaign in this state. "He's the class of the field. If this state would reject him for a Pat Buchanan . . . oh, my God."

Carney claims to be confident Dole will win by 5 points or so, and perhaps he will. But even Dole's supporters no longer rule out the possibility of defeat. And for that, Dole has mainly himself to blame.

"All my life has been a preparation for this moment," the GOP's Senate leader told his listeners here. But with all that preparation, he has yet to find a satisfactory way to express the lessons learned from his years of seasoning in the Senate and his own undoubted convictions about the foundations of American life. He has been unable, still, to translate his beliefs into a credo simple and direct enough to command the allegiance of the citizenry.

This shortcoming is one that causes Dole's handlers to throw up their hands. "He's from Kansas," Carney said by way of explanation. Kansans "are the salt of earth. But they just don't project."

Whatever the reason, when Dole tries to explain his candidacy, his rhetoric seems earnest, but disjointed. "It's about leadership," Dole declared. "That's what it's really about. It's about character. It's about the character of our nation. It's about moral leadership. It's about values--honesty, sincerity, integrity, self-reliance, responsibility--the things we want to instill in our children. But it's even more than that. It's about somebody who understands America. Somebody who understands what made America great."

As a result, despite his seemingly commanding early lead in the polls of this state's Republican voters, Dole turned out to be vulnerable. When multimillionaire publisher Steve Forbes opened the year by launching a massive double-barreled TV campaign in this state, promoting his flat-tax proposal and attacking Dole and the other candidates, a good part of Dole's support eroded.

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