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Flirting With Disaster: Dole's Negative Coattails

July 28, 1996|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — The "Dump Dole" movement is underway.

It started last week when conservative columnist Cal Thomas shocked the political world by calling on Bob Dole to pull out of the race and throw next month's Republican convention open. "Such a course would be better than disaster," Thomas wrote, "and a growing number of conservatives around the country think disaster is the destination of the Dole candidacy."

He's right. No candidate has ever come from this far behind to win. Dole's ratings are going the wrong way--down six points since June. Tobacco may have claimed another victim.

Is there anything Dole can do to turn this around? Well, yes. He can get Colin L. Powell on the ticket. But that's not going to happen. Is there anything else Dole can do? No. No strategic maneuver, no campaign tactic, no brilliant choice of running mate, no eloquent acceptance speech, nothing. Dole gave it his best shot when he left the Senate. It was bold, it was widely applauded. And it didn't mean much. He's still 17 points behind.

Does that mean the election is over? No. A lot could happen to destroy public confidence in President Bill Clinton. A Whitewater indictment. A foreign-policy crisis. A stock-market crash. None of them is likely. But any one could happen. The point is, events like that are not under the control of the GOP campaign.

What has conservatives in a panic is not the prospect of Dole's losing. Many conservatives have already given up on him. Anti-abortion forces are planning to challenge even the weak tolerance language in the draft GOP platform. The National Rifle Assn. is threatening to withhold its endorsement because Dole no longer supports a repeal of the assault-weapons ban.

Conservatives are reacting with dismay to the line-up of "liberal" speakers on the first night of the convention: Powell, Gerald R. Ford, George Bush and Dole's choice for keynote speaker, pro-choice Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.). Not a movement conservative among them. Patrick J. Buchanan? Right now, there is no plan for him to speak at all.

What panics conservatives is that Dole's negative coattails may bring the whole party down. In Thomas' view, Republicans have to ask themselves, "whether it is worth losing everything that conservatives have worked for since Barry Goldwater just so Bob Dole can go down in flames, taking other Republicans with him."

Republicans stand a good chance of losing the crown jewel of 1994--the House of Representatives. Since 1960, three presidents have won landslide reelections: Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, Richard M. Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984. Each landslide brought substantial gains in the House.

Democrats need a net gain of 20 seats to reclaim the House. If Clinton wins by a landslide--15 points or more--a 20-seat gain seems possible, given the large number of vulnerable seats the GOP will be defending because of its 1994 landslide.

Much depends on turnout. The big GOP victories of 1980 and 1994 were driven by huge turnouts of Republican voters.

The last time Republicans suffered a serious setback was in the "Watergate election" of 1974. That year, demoralized Republicans stayed home. If that happens again this year, GOP candidates across the country will be swept away.

The signs are not encouraging. The kinds of voters who came out in huge numbers in 1994--Christian conservatives, gun owners and Southern whites--are not enthralled by Dole. In one poll this month, almost half those planning to vote for Dole say they expect him to lose.

The GOP rank-and-file is demoralized. Demoralized voters tend to stay home. Only one thing can get them out: a resurgence of the Clinton hatred that drove them to the polls in such large numbers two years ago. Don't expect a kinder, gentler GOP convention.

The convention may not be so kind or gentle to Dole, either. If he continues to look weak, you can expect an ideologically raucous meeting. Remember: Dole moved to the right in the GOP primaries--he had to compete with Buchanan for conservative support, and outflank Steve Forbes and Lamar Alexander.

It worked--but Dole may pay a price for that strategy at the convention. Many Dole delegates are conservatives first and Dole supporters second. If they see disaster looming, it may be hard for Dole forces to hold conservative delegates in line.

What kind of disaster is looming? Suppose Republicans lose the House. Then Newt Gingrich's speakership will be judged a failure. That will end his national ambitions. Losing the House would also short-circuit the careers of some promising young Republicans--like John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), the budget committee chair.

A big Senate loss would be a damaging blow to the new majority leader, Trent Lott (R-Miss.), and to Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), chief strategist of the GOP Senate campaign. It could also end the careers of such prominent conservatives as Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Liberals will dance in the streets.

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