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Dole Bucks Up Sagging Spirits in Congress

September 12, 1996|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — On a gray, rainy morning in the nation's capital, Bob Dole appealed Wednesday to his former Republican colleagues in Congress to be of good cheer and not give up on his presidential campaign.

The session was to be a pep rally of sorts--the former senator and his running mate, Jack Kemp, surrounded by those he knows best in the wood-paneled committee room where the nation's tax laws are written.

But given the state of the polls, grit seemed a more appropriate word than pep.

"We're behind right now," Dole acknowledged. But, he said, "I want to say to those fainthearted people in the audience--there are probably not very many--don't worry about this election, we're going to win. We're going to win. We're going to make it happen."

"Fifty-four days is a long time in politics, we've all been in tough races, the polls are down, people get discouraged, but the candidate can never get discouraged, the candidate has to be optimistic."

Life has taught him that lesson, Dole told his listeners, and he produced a letter to prove it. It was a missive the Army had sent to his father a half-century ago--on Dec. 27, 1945.

Dole read it aloud: "We regret to inform you that your son, Robert J. Dole, who was admitted to this hospital on 10 October 1945, is seriously ill with pulmonary infarction. At the present time it would appear that his recovery is somewhat questionable."

"I've, you know, I've been in a tough spot before," he told the now silent crowd. "I understand you have your ups and downs in this business, you have your ups and downs in this life."

"The bottom line," he said, was to stay "optimistic."

But while politicians are often optimistic for themselves, optimism on behalf of others is a less common commodity.

Introducing Dole, Trent Lott of Mississippi, his successor as Senate majority leader, told him that "we're going to be there with you."

But many were not.

Perhaps it was the weather. Or the early hour (8:30). Or, perhaps, the just-ended recess that had some House members still trickling back into town.

"We didn't even know anything about this until midafternoon Monday," said Lott, trying to explain the many absentees--more than half the Republican membership.

But the scene would have been familiar to Democratic presidential aspirants like George S. McGovern, Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis--a sparse crowd, a half-filled room, chairs set aside for members of Congress filled at the last minute with staff members.

Later in the day, as Dole flew to Connecticut, the only Republican elected official along for the trip was the state's governor, John G. Rowland, who is not running for reelection this year.

"Republican legislators are edgy" because of Dole's poor showing in polls, Rowland, a former member of Congress, told reporters. "That's the nature of the beast. They're running every two years. They're always edgy. They're looking at the polls."

Those polls have many Republicans deeply worried. If Dole loses badly, history would indicate that he would pull at least some Republican lawmakers down to defeat with him. A bad enough loss might cost the GOP the control of Capitol Hill that the party won only two years ago.

"Bob Dole is in a real uphill fight," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). "Anything close to 60% [for President Clinton] and we're out of power."

Dole sought to reassure the members of Congress that things are not as bad as they seem.

His economic plan--a 15% cut in income tax rates across the board--does convince those voters who hear it, he insisted. "It resonates, it resonates with audiences all across America," he practically shouted.

And there is another thing too, he said.

"I think the American voter is just waiting for Bob Dole and Jack Kemp and Republican members of Congress and Republican governors and Republican office-holders and Republicans generally to give them one good reason not to vote for the other person," he told them.

"And I believe in the final analysis that reason is going to be trust--trust. . . . Who do I trust, Bob Dole or Bill Clinton?"

Republicans attending the Dole speech said it provided a much-needed morale lift. "After the Democratic convention, our troops needed a little boost to get our spirits up," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

Said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), "It was a speech of reassurance that he and Jack Kemp are in this race to win and that they have a winning message. There has been a drumbeat of negative commentary about his chances of winning."

Dole, for his part, insisted later to reporters that he had seen no "anxiety" in the faces of the lawmakers arrayed before him.

In Connecticut and in Delaware, he continued his now-standard "Listening to America" campaign format--question-and-answer sessions with carefully picked audiences of supporters--and he continued too to promote his tax cut plan.

His long record as a prominent member--for a time the chairman--of the Senate Finance Committee, which helps write the nation's tax laws, might make his current advocacy of a simpler tax system seem contradictory, he told his audience in Hartford, Conn.

But, he said, "none of us are perfect, and we've all got voting records. . . . It's time we moved on this complicated, outdated tax code of ours."

And there too he repeated the rallying cry of every trailing candidate: "Don't pay any attention to the polls."

Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this story.

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