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Dole's 'Last Crusade' Was Awkward Campaign of Compromises

Analysis: Master of Senate lost control of his final race. His flip-flops and changes in strategy painted an unconvincing picture for voters.


DES MOINES — After 35 years of distinguished public service, it all came down to this single scene: the former senator from the great state of Kansas, standing at the cusp of election day in an Iowa bowling alley, bashing Bill Clinton and asking for votes.

Bob Dole's midnight warm-up act was Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain--friend, confidant and articulate interpreter for a quiet man with a sterling record who was forced to remake himself in painful ways in his final unsuccessful run for the White House:

"This is the last crusade of a great warrior, a member of a generation of Americans who went out and made the world safe for democracy," McCain said Tuesday as a tearful Dole stood quietly behind him in the crush of a rally at the Air Lanes, "so that we could have lives that were far better for ourselves and our children."

He was a giant in Congress, master of a legislative universe both intimate and powerful, a man whose record of accomplishment soured fast from asset to liability as the clock ran down on campaign '96.

In the end, the self-proclaimed "most optimistic man in America" struggled with the age-old question of competition: Do you fight dirty and hope to win, or do you play it clean and protect your place in history?

Dole tried to do both and succeeded at neither, leaving an awkward montage of images in his final push for what he calls "the most powerful office, not just here, but in the world."

Blaming Voters

There he is in Pensacola, Fla., in late October, blaming the voters for the predicament he is in, trailing badly behind a president whose character Dole constantly and openly disparaged in the final chapter of the campaign.

"I wonder sometimes what people are thinking about, or if people are thinking at all--if they really watched this administration, watched what's happened in the White House, watched what's happened in some of their policies, watched what's happened when the president tells one thing and does precisely the other," he fumed. "Time after time after time."

The very next day at a Houston rally, the statesman with a history of good media relations lashes out on camera about a Fourth Estate that he claims simply does not care and, in fact, goes out of its way to pamper the president.

"Where is the outrage in America? Where is the outrage in America?" he demands, thumping the lectern with his fist. "Where has the media gone in America? Where is the outrage in America? . . . When will the American people rise up and say: 'Forget the media in America. We're going to make up our minds; you're not going to make up our minds'?"

The weeklong outburst coincided with embarrassing revelations that Dole had not only sent campaign manager Scott Reed to Dallas to ask Reform Party candidate Ross Perot to drop out of the race and endorse the Republican--but that Perot had said no. The billionaire candidate called Dole's entreaty "weird and inconsequential."

Doles' 'Dynamic'

Shortly afterward, Elizabeth Hanford Dole largely left her solo campaign efforts on her husband's behalf and joined him on the road for much of the duration. Campaign press secretary Nelson Warfield said their "positive dynamic" while campaigning together accounted for the doubling up.

With his wife at his side, the candidate calmed down and seemed to shift his focus to how history will remember him, wrapping himself in the mantle of presidents both living and dead. On Oct. 30, when the Doles left Washington for their final week on the campaign trail, they began the journey with a visit to the Lincoln Memorial.

After vowing to "win this election, Mr. Lincoln," Dole told a Tennessee rally that "we are the party of Lincoln, and I'm proud of it."

"I've read a lot about Lincoln," he said. "I know the good times. The bad times. The doubtful times. But he never lost his focus. He did what he set out to do, and that was to save the union and keep us together. That's what I am continuing to try to do: Keep America together. Honor the public trust."

Tax Code Reformer

For 35 years, Dole did just that, at least in the legislative arena. As the longest-serving Republican leader in the history of the Senate, Dole championed the rights of disabled Americans, helped rescue Social Security and fought to cut the deficit.

He stood by the GIs in Vietnam through the tumultuous 1960s, reformed the tax code, supported civil rights, defended food stamps and led the efforts to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a national holiday.

That legacy could have been Dole's greatest asset in his third and final run for the White House. But as he changed his positions on a host of key issues in an effort to broaden his appeal, the taciturn plain-speaker was singularly unable to finesse the flip-flops to the satisfaction of the voters.

Each time he tried to articulate a new position, such as why he no longer believed in affirmative action or why he was suddenly embracing supply-side economics, Dole was unconvincing.

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