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Advice for Dole From One Who's Been There

CAMPAIGN ROADMAP. A continuing series of articles analyzing the '96 presidential strategies.

July 21, 1996|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

WASHINGTON — I am not in the business of giving advice to GOP presidential candidates. But since there are so many similarities between Bob Dole's daunting task of unseating Bill Clinton and Walter F. Mondale's campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1984, I feel sympathy for Dole and, particularly, for his managers--having been there myself. At that time, I also received constant unsolicited advice. But since all that advice is now coming from Republicans, here's some from the other side.

Dole's worst enemy is Dole. The worst words spoken about him these past terrible weeks came from his own mouth. My experience with presidential candidates, particularly former senators, is that they are a hard-headed lot and no matter how good the advice, they refuse to be handled. Dole seems the epitome of this. So, the best thing to do is to prevent him from hurting himself by keeping him as far away as possible from the national press corps.

I've read such efforts are underway, but I'd take it a step farther. Under no circumstances should Dole be allowed on any national talk show or in one-on-one interviews with any national correspondents. Dole thinks he knows these people, and, in many cases, he believes they are friends. But Dole, who is a friendly person, should understand that these people's job is to get him to be as unfriendly as possible. One-on-one interviews should be given only to local-TV personalities between now and the GOP convention.

Dole needs rest. Not only because he is 73, but also because he is about to give the most important speech of his life in San Diego. He needs to work on it, think it through and, above all, practice it over and over. At least two weeks before the convention, I would send him to his favorite condo in Florida and give him the break he will surely need to meet the task ahead. And a few days off for a 73-year-old man ain't a bad idea, anyway.

As to message, the reason Dole can't seem to stay on it is that there is no "it" there. To rely on a Clinton character crash alone will not cut it. Dole must articulate an economic message. He should probably take the advice of the big-tax-cut faction of his advisors and propose a major tax cut. There is at least a one-in-five chance that Dole will be able to convince the public that it can work and not bankrupt the country. And, what the hell, Dole's options are so limited, he might as well roll the dice. Leave the pain of a balanced-budget message to Ross Perot and Richard D. Lamm.

Speaking of Perot and, for that matter, Patrick J. Buchanan, here's another idea that may sound nutty at first--but think it through. Both Perot and Buchanan reaped enormous support for their opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Dole supported NAFTA--but now is the time to announce his opposition to it. Talk about cutting Buchanan and Perot off at the knees.

It's easier done than you think. Dole can simply say the idea of truly free trade is what motivated him to support NAFTA, but the agreement has not produced free and fair trade. Examples abound where NAFTA has not lived up to the letter or the spirit of its intent; Dole's smart international-trade team should figure out where, and quick.

But if you truly want to cut into Perot and Buchanan, attack our trading partners, in general--China for ripping off our privacy rights and our European friends for everything from agriculture to aerospace subsidies. In other words, stand up for U.S. workers against our allies. You don't have to abandon free trade, but you sure can emphasize fair trade. The political benefits are enormous.

The most important events of the fall for Dole will be the presidential debates. Already, he is a 50-1 underdog against Clinton in this forum. Expectations are incredibly low--as low as Mondale's against Reagan in 1984. But we had a secret weapon: Those very expectations. If Dole takes the right amount of time to prepare, he will almost surely do better than expected, in the first debate at least.

Dole should do everything he can to make sure Perot does not take part in the debates. The last thing he needs is Perot on that stage. He needs Clinton one-on-one, without any interference from the whiny little fellow from Texas. The only reason I can stomach Perot again is that he will help Clinton--but after this election, may that giant sucking sound heading to Mexico include Perot.

Dole's running mate is a tough call. Forget Colin L. Powell; he doesn't want it and the Dole campaign shouldn't want him. Powell looks more and more like a prima donna who will get mauled in the rough and tumble of politics. The standard gubernatorial choices are all duds. Not one can assure Dole he can even carry his own state. If Dole must go to the Congress for a vice president, then Sen. John McCain of Arizona is the only choice.

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