Affirmative action is only one of a series of issues on which some Republican conservatives have begun to worry that Dole may abandon their agenda in a search for votes from the political center.
Earlier this week, Dole reignited conservative anger by siding with moderate Republicans who want to change a plank in the party's platform against abortion. Dole also has moved away from proposals, widely floated by advisors, for across-the-board tax cuts. And he recently criticized the House GOP freshmen for creating "public anxiety" about Republican compassion.
Finally, some conservatives were upset by Dole's farewell speech to the Senate on Tuesday, in which he provided a list of his proudest achievements that included helping to create the food stamp program and passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which many conservatives see as prime examples of big-government excess.
Earlier this week, conservatives were blaming Dole's moves on his attempts to woo retired Gen. Colin L. Powell to be his running mate. In a recent speech, Powell sharply criticized the California ballot measure and stated strong support for affirmative action.
Tuesday, however, Dole told reporters that it was "very doubtful" that Powell would be on the Republican presidential ticket.
That makes more likely the possibility that Dole's moves have been driven not by the desire to attract Powell, but by a broader strategic shift, following the advice that the late President Richard Nixon had given him: Run to the right to win the nomination and then "run as fast as you can back to the middle" to contest the general election.
That prospect has opened the way not only for Republican worries, but also for Democratic jabs.
"I guess the question now is, now that Gen. Powell has reiterated his intention not to run, will the Dole campaign switch again," said Stephanopoulos, savoring the chance to toss back one of the Republicans' favorite charges against Clinton. "It's a character test."