Posted on May 13, 1996 in Washington Watch

It is six months until November and President Bill Clinton’s lead over his Republican challenger Bob Dole is growing and the Republican party is locked in an intra-party war. But Democrats know that it is a long time until election day and they are not yet ready to celebrate.

A recent study of all the major national polls shows that Clinton’s lead over Dole has been expanding since January. Some polls give the President a 30% lead, with the average margin in excess of 20%. Clinton’s approval ratings are also now at a three-year high, with 56% of all voters now viewing the President positively.

What is especially heartening for Democrats is the fact that their strategy appears to be working. Instead of actually campaigning against Dole, Clinton, who has not even formally announced his reelection campaign, is simply being President Clinton and not candidate Clinton.

This White House strategy, modeled to some extent after Reagan’s 1984 campaign, has been to personally stay above the fray until the fall, and allow the party to carry the bulk of the campaign until then. For its part, the Democratic party has targeted massive advertising campaigns in key states where they have determined that it is important to build the President’s positive image. Not convinced that their lead will hold until November, the Democratic approach is designed to firm up the President’s positives before the campaign actually takes off in the fall.

At the same time, it has fallen to Democratic spokespeople and White House staff to respond to each and every Republican attack on the President. This “rapid response” approach has so far worked and has enables the President to appear to be above the political fray.

As a result of this Democratic strategy, not only is the President’s lead growing, but he is building support in every region of the country. The Clinton margin over Dole is substantially larger than the May 1984 lead that then President Reagan had over his Democratic challenger Walter Mondale. Reagan’s margin was 12%—Clinton’s ‘96 lead is nearly double that.

But Democrats have not yet declared victory. They remember that in May of 1992 then President Bush had a 16% lead over challenger Clinton and in May of 1980 then President Carter has a 7% lead over challenger Ronald Reagan. Disaster can strike and seemingly invincible campaigns can fall apart.

What is contributing to the President’s advantage at this point is the fact that while their strategy appears to be working, the Republican’s efforts have been hampered by internal fighting that is hurting their candidate.

After a bitter year-long campaign, Dole finally emerged in April as the successful Republican nominee. Almost immediately Dole was hit by public criticism from leaders in his own party. Dissatisfied by their candidate’s performance, a number of Republican elected officials attacked Dole for his “lack of vision,” what they termed his “failure to provide leadership,” and his “weak performance” as Senate Leader.

Some respected Republican intellectuals went so far as to call on their fellow party members to begin planning for a “post-November loss strategy.” These public expressions of pessimism were reminiscent of fellow Democrats distancing themselves from what they assumed to be a losing Mondale campaign in 1984.

Stung by public calls for him to leave his Senate leadership post and begin a more aggressive Presidential campaign, Dole’s aides began to plan a series of major addresses in early May that would establish their candidate’s vision and themes and silence his critics. But this strategy encountered unexpected difficulties.

As Dole embarked on his mission, some Republicans unaccountably distracted attention from his efforts by beginning a public intra-party war.

The first shot was surprisingly fired by Dole’s National Campaign Chairperson, New York Senator Al D’Amato. As Dole was preparing to deliver the first of his major theme-setting speeches, D’Amato stole the headlines of the day by delivering a verbal assault against conservative leader Pat Buchanan. Calling Buchanan a “philosophical ayatollah,” D’Amato’s attack only served to distract attention from Dole and to provoke Buchanan to threaten to leave the party unless the attacks stopped. Buchanan’s challenge is clear. If he and his far-right supporters are not given a welcome at the Republican convention, they might decide to start a third party.

Inexplicably, D’Amato continued his war the next day, choosing for his next target the Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich.

At this point it became clear that the Dole campaign was working at cross purposes with itself. It is no secret that Senator Dole has needed to cut both Gingrich and Buchanan down to size and that the assigned “hatchet man” was his campaign chairman. But the timing of, and the ferociousness of the attacks were puzzling. They distracted attention away from Dole’s long-awaited message speeches and provoked bitter retaliation.

Gingrich and his conservative allies responded with a public attack on D’Amato. In an effort to silence this intra-party feuding, the National Chair of the Republican party also criticized D’Amato for the attacks. But all this did was create yet another day of press stories about Republican in-fighting.

If all of this were not enough to unsettle Dole, the volatile issue of abortion once again emerged to expose deep Republican divisions.

In the past few weeks five Republican governors, all Dole supporters, have called on their party to drop anti-abortion language from the 1996 Republican party platform. Calling for more tolerance within the party for a diversity of opinion on abortion, their public challenge brought a sharp rebuke from the pro-life anti-abortion movement.

Both Pat Buchanan and his allies in the Christian right-wing have stated that if the Republican party attempted to drop its opposition to abortion they would wage a bitter fight at the party convention in August, and if they lost, would leave the party.

All of these antics have left the Dole campaign in shambles. First attacks on Dole’s “visionless, non-charismatic style,” then an intra-party feud, and finally a brewing war between the irreconcilable pro and anti-abortion wings of the party. The campaign has been sidetracked and is having trouble gaining control.

It will be recalled that it was precisely the inability to gain control of its message and to rein in disparate voices within the party that so severely wounded Clinton and the Democrats in 1993 and 1994.

Dole’s campaign will have to work hard to get their campaign and candidate back in focus. Their strategy in the coming months will be directed at a number of goals. First, they will be working to silence the intra-party conflict. This may not be easy, but is essential if they are to move forward to November. Since the divisions within the party are real, it may be a good thing that they have emerged early in the campaign. If issue conflicts and personal rivalries can be resolved before August, Dole’s chances may improve. In any case, many Republican analysts are saying that since these conflicts were inevitable, it is better to deal with them now than to wait until the fall.

Second, the Dole campaign will attempt to gain control over how they project their image to the press and the public. It is essential for Dole to define a clear vision of what his leadership will bring to Americans. He must also clearly define the differences between his vision and that of President Clinton.

Thus far this effort has been frustrated by a number of factors. Intra-party feuding has been a distraction. Another factor has been that during the costly primary season, the Dole campaign spent nearly all of the funds it is allowed to spend according to federal election law. Since President Clinton had no primary challenger, he saved his campaign funds and now can out-spend Dole between May and August. Campaign finance reports show that the Clinton campaign has almost $20 million left to spend on advertising before the August conventions, while the Dole campaign has less than $1 million remaining.

One additional factor that has hurt the ability of the Dole campaign to define itself has been Clinton’s ability to “steal” many Republican issues. By accepting a balanced budget, welfare reform, and by focusing on foreign policy leadership, Clinton has so far muted the Republican challenges in these areas.

Finally, the Dole campaign will seek to use the question of personal integrity and character to their advantage. Bob Dole’s personal story of bravery in war and his commitment to public service are viewed by many as his strongest assets. Dole has not yet been able to establish this theme, but he clearly hopes to use it in the fall.

What has been interesting so far has been the extent to which voters seem to have ignored this issue of “character.” President Clinton’s personal flaws have become cliché. Books have been written, jokes have been told, and the attacks against the President have been relentless. And yet Clinton has not only survived, but his personal ratings among voters have substantially improved.

With six months to go, it appears that Democrats have a decided advantage. They have a focused candidate, a unified party, and a strategy that appears to be working. Republicans, meanwhile, are suffering from a candidate who can’t get on track, a feuding party, and a strategy that is being foiled at every step.

If the election were today, Clinton would win. But it is still too early to predict a November outcome, too many uncertainties remain: the possibility of third and fourth party candidates, the stability of the economy, and the potential for a crisis in a volatile world. Any of these could have a dramatic impact on the election campaigns.

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