RED OAK, IOWA — Rumbling across Iowa this summer, Elizabeth Hanford Dole is offering Republican voters not an agenda, or even a cause, but a resume. She is betting her presidential campaign on a message in which ideology and detailed proposals on issues take a distinct back seat to far more personal appeals.
With some success, Dole is encouraging women "to make history" by supporting her bid to break the ultimate glass ceiling. Even more emphatically, she is touting her experience--in Cabinet offices for Reagan and Bush, and for eight years as president of the American Red Cross.
"That's what I'm offering--30 years of experience in trying to deal with tough issues and make a difference," she told the mostly female audience who recently gathered on a sultry afternoon in this southwestern Iowa town.
It's a quiet, unhurried, unhectoring appeal, so low-key that Dole, 63, sometimes asks her audiences for their votes only as an afterthought. In some of the small Iowa towns that Dole visits, this pitch goes down as smoothly as lemonade on a summer day; in Red Oak, Dole's audience listened rapturously to her speech and crowded around her afterward.
'Much Better Qualified Than Bush,' Backer Says
"I think she's much better qualified than [George W.] Bush . . . and if you have a highly qualified woman, it's time to support her," said retired teacher Ruth Rocker after Dole spoke to a standing-room crowd in nearby Atlantic.
But earlier that day, in two appearances to audiences of young professionals in Des Moines, Dole made a much more faint impression.
"I didn't hear anything new or earth-shattering--not a lot of meat there," said Republican Steve Pullman.
In those contrasting reactions are the boundaries of the challenge facing Dole in her first bid for elected office.
Dole still projects compelling star power for many Republicans, especially women. But, apart from her gender and her experience, she's had difficulty articulating a clear reason why voters should pick her as the party's next nominee.
"She is a talented, smart, capable person, but what is the rationale for her candidacy?" says GOP pollster Bill McInturff, who's advising Arizona Sen. John McCain, another contender for the Republican nomination. "They have ended up having to run a gender-based appeal because she doesn't have anything else to say."
Dole's inability to establish a clear niche in the crowded Republican field has led her to experience something unprecedented in her gilded career: downward mobility.
When she left the Red Cross last January, she trailed Bush by just 10 percentage points in an NBC/Wall Street Journal national poll. Their latest survey found Dole still in second place--but now 48 points behind Bush. She's taken a similar plunge in New Hampshire.
"She had a tremendous opportunity in February and . . . she didn't take the steps necessary," said Dick Bennett, president of an independent polling firm there. "History says you sort of have one chance and I think it will be very difficult for her [to recover] now."
Dole supporters say her slow start-- which has included the replacement of moderate GOP consultant Kieran Mahoney with conservative Tony Fabrizio as her chief strategist--represents only the inevitable growing pains of a first-time candidate. And Dole herself confidently dismisses the notion that she has already squandered her window of opportunity.
"I don't think more than 5%, if that much [of the voters], are engaged at this point in presidential politics," Dole said in an interview. Referring to Bush, she added: "The landscape is strewn with politicians who had huge amounts of money and didn't get very far."
In fact, as she tries to reignite her campaign, Dole still has some formidable assets.
Here in Iowa, site of the critical first caucus next winter, she has been able to recruit significant elements of the grass-roots organization that helped her husband, former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, win the state when he ran for president in 1988 and 1996. And she has proved to be a more engaging one-on-one campaigner than many expected. Though her events still sometimes feel overly scripted--at each stop, she took three or four questions from the audience, no more and no less--Dole herself is personable and relaxed.
Then there's the gender factor. Dole's campaign seems ambivalent, if not schizophrenic, about the role of gender in her campaign. Dole firmly insists, "I am not running because I'm a woman; I don't want people to vote for me because I'm a woman."
Yet the campaign takes almost every opportunity to remind audiences of Dole's opportunity to become the first female president. In July, she hired a plane to fly over the Women's World Cup soccer finals with a banner that read: "Go Team USA! Make history--Elizabeth Dole." In her Iowa speeches, she links her candidacy not only to the women's soccer team but also to the flight of the space shuttle's first female pilot.