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DOLE LEAVES SENATE | NEWS ANALYSIS

Need for a Dole Policy Agenda Is Taking on Greater Urgency

Campaign: Experts say he has yet to use his broad experience to connect with voters. He is seen facing an uphill fight to overcome Clinton's 15-point lead.

June 12, 1996|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — As Bob Dole departed Tuesday from the Congress in which he has served for 35 years, his presidential campaign continues to struggle with its most central difficulty: the need to frame a set of policies that would serve to justify his presidential candidacy and provide a compelling rationale for Americans to vote for him.

Indeed, analysts say, with Dole's leave-taking now accomplished, the task has taken on even greater urgency.

Tuesday's departure speech provided Dole a potential platform for laying out such a program. But Dole passed it up, saying he did not want to deliver a partisan address. Instead, he dwelt extensively on his Senate experiences and on senators he has known--references that touched his fellow legislators but probably were incomprehensible to a large number of potential voters.

Dole's evident show of emotion and the references in his speech to compassionate programs he has supported--disability rights efforts, for example--pleased some of his advisors. But, as one aide conceded, the Republican presidential hopeful has yet to explain to voters how his experiences connect to a broader agenda for the country.

Short on Dividends

Three weeks ago, when Dole announced his plan to resign, aides touted the move as a bold step that would begin to solve those problems plaguing his candidacy. But so far, the resignation decision has not paid political dividends.

Publicly, Dole insists he still has plenty of time. "We're not in any hurry to start putting out our agenda," he declared at a recent campaign stop in the New Jersey town of Holmdel. "If we did it now, there wouldn't be anything left for the convention or afterward."

Privately, however, Dole strategists concede that by the time the summer political conventions open--a little less than nine weeks from now--they must have succeeded in moving their candidate from his current standing, about 15 points or more behind President Clinton in public opinion polls, to a position right on the president's heels. Historically, whichever candidate leads on Labor Day almost invariably wins the presidency, and Dole aides, mindful of that fact, hope to see their candidate ahead by the time the Republican convention ends on Aug. 16.

Right now, to Dole's detriment, the race seems frozen. Clinton's lead has remained more or less impervious to events most of this year.

In trying to change that situation, Dole faces the most formidable challenge of his career. In the Senate, his role as Republican leader allowed him to use the legislative docket as a template for his beliefs. Dole at one time had hoped to use this spring as a period for pushing legislation that would both demonstrate his leadership skills and draw sharp distinctions between himself and Clinton.

That strategy foundered. Now, citizen Dole must try to promote himself by relying only on his own imagination and rhetorical gifts--traits which have never been his strengths as a politician.

Stress on Swing Vote

The presumptive GOP nominee's central task is to differentiate himself from Clinton without scaring off the swing voters whose allegiance will decide the election.

This is no simple job. Republicans argue that Clinton has been successful because he changes course on policies whenever he senses a shift in the political winds. But if Clinton often seems to co-opt GOP positions, Republicans themselves must bear much of the blame.

The hard-line rhetoric and tactics of the congressional GOP leadership alarmed Clinton's core Democratic supporters so much that the president has been able to lean rightward on issues from the balanced budget to curfews for teenagers without fearing loss of support among liberals. For these voters, "the alternative to Clinton is terrifying," said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Ben Ginsberg.

"Clinton has morphed into a liberal Republican, which is what he always was," said University of Texas professor Walter Dean Burnham, an authority on national elections. "That leaves the Republicans the nasty job of trying to find issues on which they disagree with him on."

Beyond that, Dole has seemed hamstrung by a conundrum in which cause-and-effect are hard to separate. His party is sharply divided over such issues as fiscal policy and abortion, in part, because Dole has been unable to provide a unifying message. In turn, Dole has had difficulty supplying a unifying theme, in part because Republicans are divided.

"There are three or four different kinds of Republicans out there and no one of them has been able to articulate an effective story for the whole Republican Party," said John Petrocik, a UCLA professor and sometime advisor to the GOP who specializes in the dynamics of political parties. "Because Bob Dole can't provide a rationale for his candidacy, it's too easy for these groups not to be concerned about his candidacy but to focus on the differences that separate them."

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