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The Elizabeth Quotient

She's smart, independent and focused. She's given up more key posts than most men could even dream of accepting. But now Elizabeth Dole just wants to see her husband lead the Free World.

August 07, 1996|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

We're serious about California. . . . Elizabeth said she would move out here, if that would erase any doubt.

--Bob Dole

*

The floats and marchers are queuing up this foggy Fourth of July morning in Huntington Beach, preparing to strut. The guest of honor has yet to arrive, but she is anxiously awaited by fans pondering the morning's thorny question:

Who do you like better, Elizabeth Dole or Bob?

"That's like picking between ice cream and steak, it's two different things," argues Nicki Wolfe, a member of the Balboa Bay Republicans, pausing just a moment before getting to the real point. "If she were running for president, I would sure vote for her."

For 20 years, Elizabeth Hanford Dole has been her husband's "Southern Strategy," "Rainbow" to his "Ramrod," to use their early Secret Service monikers, his most ardent defender. And, his occasional competitor. In 1988, both were on the short list to be George Bush's running mate.

Today, she is an integral cog--both as advisor and mate--to his hopes of moving into the White House.

Dole is her husband's surrogate on the hustings, which allows them to cover twice as much ground. She serves as his eyes and ears and calls his aides with daily reports. And GOP strategists see her as the bridge over the candidate's yawning gender gap, though some polls show so far that she's not really much help in that department. In California, men like her, while women favor Hillary Clinton.

Various polls also show that while Americans know surprisingly little of the personal side of Bob Dole, a man who has trod the public stage for 35 years in the highly specialized world of Congress, we know even less about his wife, long among the most powerful women in U.S. politics.

Elizabeth ("don't call me Liddy") Dole has given up more prominent Washington jobs than most men have ever accepted. She is, in no particular order, a former secretary of Transportation, a former secretary of Labor, a former member of the Federal Trade Commission and a former assistant to President Reagan; currently, she is on hiatus from the presidency of the American Red Cross.

"My wife is so talented," declares a jocular Bob Dole, in a dig at the current first lady and her imaginary conversations, "that Eleanor Roosevelt is trying to reach her."

And he is fond of telling cheering conservatives: "She does a great job, and I think she'll do an outstanding job as first lady. And she will not be in charge of health care. We may have a little blood bank in the White House, but otherwise. . . ."

While it has become commonplace to compare Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole as sisters under the skin--both have Ivy League law degrees, both are devout Methodists, both come from affluent professional families unlike their Horatio Alger husbands--to do so is to miss a crucial fact of their lives.

"There is a very important distinction," says historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, who has written widely on the political power of presidential wives. "They are only about 10 years apart, but those 10 years represent being on different sides of a mountain."

Clinton, 48, is a product of the feminist movement. Dole, 60, began her studies at Harvard Law School in 1962--one of 24 women in a class of 550--the year before Betty Friedan's landmark "The Feminine Mystique" hit the country's bookstores and our national psyche.

Dole's "advancement has been a product of individual initiative against the rest of the world," Anthony says. "She operated in a vacuum, a woman out there among men. She became one of the boys. She proved herself."

Elizabeth Dole's current full-time project is her husband's struggling presidential bid. While she denies that California is her particular focus, she has spent 23 days in the Golden State over seven separate trips, visiting 39 cities with and without her candidate husband since he announced his run for president 16 months ago.

She has walked through food banks, feed companies, hospitals, even toured the gas chamber, pretty in pink. She has met with young people, old people, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, even Shamu the killer whale.

She has been to breakfasts, lunches, dinners, coffees, barbecues and chili cook-offs here. She has signed books, watched "Independence Day" while munching popcorn and Goobers, celebrated her 60th birthday at Chez Helene restaurant in Beverly Hills. She has raised money but never lowered her guard.

"I'm very much an extrovert, so I don't think of myself as a private person," says this woman who has perfected the art of saying a lot while giving virtually nothing away. She adds: "I certainly enjoy the privacy of having time with my husband alone rather than being out on the social circuit."

She hasn't had much of that lately, but that goes with the territory when your husband is trying to become the leader of the Free World. Perhaps more striking is how little privacy this power couple of politics has ever had.

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