Posted on June 10, 1996 in Washington Watch

Republican Bob Dole’s decision to resign from the U.S. Senate in order to campaign full-time for the presidency has brought a new intensity to the race for the White House.

Freed from the daily business of Washington law-making, Dole has finally emerged as a formidable candidate.

Dole’s resignation speech was a classic work of political theater. Although he had reached the decision to leave the Senate weeks before, it remained a closely-guarded secret. As a result, the drama and impact of the announcement was powerful. Both the press and the public were caught by surprise. And the significance of the moment was lost on no one: here was Senator Robert Dole, a man who had been in the Congress for over half his life, leaving the institution he called his home.

Both the surprise factor and the risk involved (if Dole loses the presidency, he will no longer have a position in government), contributed to the drama of the resignation. So, too, did the short but emotional speech he delivered.

The speech had been masterfully crafted by an award-winning novelist and Dole, not known for his speaking ability, delivered it flawlessly. Rehearsals and the assistance of a teleprompter gave Dole the ability to present a new image to the American people.

In part, presenting a new image was what the resignation was all about – the reshaping of Bob Dole. Recognizing that his stiffness, lack of eloquence and his Washington insider-status cast a shadow over the Dole campaign, the resignation drama sought to portray Dole as personable, thoughtful and emotional, and “just a man” willing to take the risk of giving up the trappings of power in order to win the presidency.

Some may be critical of the gimmickry of contemporary politics, but in a modern age whose images and symbols create realities, such gimmicks have become essential to communication.

In the weeks that followed the resignation, Dole intensified his campaigning, crises-crossing the country. Renewed by his changed status, Dole drew tremendous press attention. His speeches, now being written by two former speech writers for Ronald Reagan, were focused and message-oriented speeches. And his events have become well-planned for photo-opportunities and television coverage.

A Dole campaign strategy is also emerging. The states and constituencies he is visiting and the issues he is now addressing make clear the direction of the Dole for President campaign.

Key Midwestern states and ethnic groups whose votes will be critical in November are special targets of the re-energized Dole campaign. A speech on NATO expansion to Polish Americans, and an anti-abortion address to a convention of Catholic journalists are examples of this strategy.

The Dole message is being crafted to capture media attention and define both the candidacy of Bob Dole and his deep differences with President Bill Clinton.

Although it is still early in the campaign, some patterns are already emerging in this Dole-Clinton contest.

This campaign will be mean. An underlying theme in every Dole message speech is an attack on Bill Clinton’s character. Republicans have clearly determined that they must play the character card. It is a risky business to attack the character of a president – but Dole has decided to do it. In one recent speech he declared that Clinton “can not be trusted.”

And in another speech, Dole charged that Clinton had:

” inflated [his] claims about crime-fighting, broken promises on taxes and welfare, stolen GOP ideas on welfare and adoption – and, for the first time, the Whitewater convictions…were evidence that the American people should not trust the President. ...Every time Bill Clinton says one thing and does another…he puts his credibility on the table.”

It is also clear is that Democrats will fight back. Having learned from Michael Dukakis’ defeat in 1988, Democrats are resolved not to allow any attacks to go unanswered.

And so the White House has established a rapid response team and trouble-shooting squads. No sooner has Dole given his speech than White House aides are on the telephone with reporters covering the Dole event. They have developed the capability to assemble facts quickly to rebut the Dole charges, as well as make charges of their own.

The result has been to deny Dole the ability to capture unfiltered news coverage of his speeches. For example, on the day Dole announced his support for an advanced missile system and argued that Bill Clinton’s defense policy left the U.S. vulnerable to missile attacks, the Clinton staff immediately released a Republican study showing that Dole’s proposal would cost billions of dollars and break the balanced budget. When Dole condemned Clinton for not being tough enough on crime and presented an alternative anti-crime program, the Clinton staff immediately responded by showing that Dole had voted against that very proposal when the President had presented it.

What is at stake as the candidates charge and counter-charge is their ability to define themselves as centrist candidates who speak for the values of the majority of America.

In the famous 1964 Johnson-Goldwater presidential race, Johnson succeeded in painting Goldwater into an extremist conservative corner. The reverse was true in the 1984 Reagan-Mondale and the 1988 Bush-Dukakis races, in which the Republicans were successful in defining their Democratic opponents as “ultra-liberals.”

Clinton has attempted to avoid this problem by co-opting several traditionally Republican themes, including welfare reform, strong national defense, a tough line against crime, and downsizing government. By claiming the political center on these and other issues, Clinton is seeking to force Dole to attack him from the right and thereby appear to be the one on the extreme.

For his part, Dole is challenging Clinton’s claim to be a centrist by calling into question the President’s veracity and by focusing on what he calls Clinton’s liberal policies.

Dole’s dramatic resignation from the Senate, his revitalized campaign and the recent conviction of some of the President’s former business associates in the now infamous but still little understood Whitewater fiasco have earned the Republican candidate strong support from his party and good press coverage. But all of this combined has not yet added up to any change in the polls or in public acceptance of Dole’s campaign.

The President still holds a strong lead in the polls, although that lead should begin to narrow as Dole’s press coverage re-energizes Republican support nationwide.

For his part, Clinton has maintained his campaign strategy, and it has continued to be effective. The Whitewater controversy still hangs like a dark cloud over Washington, but it has not yet rained on the President. And while Dole has left the Senate and Washington in search of sunlight, he appears not to have found it yet. Polls out this week still show Clinton with a commanding 20 point lead and with favorable ratings much higher than his Republican challenger.

That is the picture now, but there are still five months until November.

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