WASHINGTON — In an abrupt change of course, Bob Dole has decided to relinquish his duties as Senate majority leader and begin campaigning virtually full time for the presidency, Republican sources said Tuesday.
Dole's decision comes after weeks of lobbying by advisors, friends and Senate colleagues who believe the only way he can mount a vigorous campaign--and overcome President Clinton's double-digit lead in the polls--is to disentangle himself from Senate affairs and concentrate on his quest for the White House.
It was not clear Tuesday night whether Dole would formally give up his Senate title--and if so, when--or whether one or more senators would assume his duties. Dole has scheduled a press conference today to reveal further details of his intentions.
Also Tuesday, Dole campaign officials reiterated that he has no plans to name a running mate before the GOP's national convention in San Diego in mid-August. Dole's choice of a running mate has been a topic of ongoing speculation since he effectively clinched the party nomination in mid-March.
The advice that Dole disengage from his congressional duties had grown in urgency as Senate business ground to a halt this month amid partisan wrangling over repeal of a 1993 gas tax increase, a raise in the hourly minimum wage and other matters.
Dole had hoped to spend the months before the Republican convention demonstrating his leadership acumen in Congress. Instead, as many of his legislative efforts foundered, he was saddled with the image of an ineffective leader and was often reduced to blaming Democrats for congressional "gridlock."
Dole closed Tuesday's Senate session, for instance, by accusing Democrats of holding his bid to repeal the gas tax increase "hostage," and he pulled the measure from the floor.
The pressure on the Kansas senator to step up his presidential campaign also has mounted as public opinion polls continue to show President Clinton with a daunting lead.
Dole's decision to relinquish his duties appears to be an immediate outgrowth of discussions among his Republican Senate colleagues at their regular Tuesday strategy session. During that meeting, a decision was made that several other top GOP senators would take Dole's place in responding to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who meets almost daily with congressional reporters to discuss a range of issues.
"We decided to have a daily spokesman--a reaction team," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), the No. 3 Senate Republican. "This way, he wouldn't have to be in position of responding every day to Sen. Daschle. We thought he should be responding to President Clinton."
The trio appointed to relieve Dole of that responsibility is Cochran, chairman of the GOP conference; Majority Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi and Don Nickles of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee.
It was sometime after the session that Dole apparently finalized his decision to turn over his other leadership duties as well.
The decision elated campaign staffers, who by late Tuesday were busily setting up a campaign event for Thursday in Illinois, which is a potentially crucial battleground state in the November election.
As previously scheduled, Dole is to campaign in North Carolina and Florida this weekend and, right after Memorial Day, in Colorado, California and Ohio.
Engaged earlier this year in a hotly contested struggle for the GOP nomination, Dole's campaign spent nearly all the funds that it can legally spend before the Republican convention in August, when a new infusion of federal matching funds will become available.
But party officials say they can find ways to finance Dole's travels in the weeks leading to the convention. Last weekend, the Republican National Committee and the host state party organizations shared in the tab.
Dole first alluded to his intentions Monday night at a dinner with members of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, who were in town for their annual Washington visit, according to Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, Dole's Kansas colleague. Although Dole did not elaborate, Kassebaum said that she came away with the impression that his decision to shed his Senate duties was "24 or 48 hours away."
Dole further hinted at his plans during a private lunch in Washington Tuesday with 18 of the country's 31 Republican governors.
"Sen. Dole told us he intends to change his schedule in order to be out there more in the states," Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad told the Associated Press, adding that Dole did not elaborate.
In recent weeks, Dole has become increasingly frustrated by his inability to move legislation through the Senate.
Several weeks ago, amid skyrocketing gasoline prices, he proposed repealing the 4.3-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax that was enacted in 1993. The issue immediately soared to the top of the national agenda and prompted Clinton to release 12 million gallons of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a way to drive down prices.