Posted on August 19, 1996 in Washington Watch

Bob Dole’s presidential campaign had a very good week. A surprising choice for a vice presidential running mate and a highly controlled Republican Convention has finally given the Dole campaign the energy it needed to compete in the race to November.

In retrospect, Dole’s announcement of a 15% tax cut for all Americans was just an initial sign of the effort that was to be made by Republicans to turn their campaign around.

Plagued for months by growing dissatisfaction with their candidate’s performance, a few Republican commentators echoing the fears of some party leaders and activists actually asked Dole to step down as the nominee and allow a more dynamic leader to take on Bill Clinton. Clearly, something dramatic needed to be done.

For too many voters the Republican party and its nominee had become type cast as extremist, out of touch with the needs of average Americans and too old and tired to compete.

Responding to these challenges, Dole strategists began to plot a campaign to transform that image. By dropping his decade’s old opposition to Ronald Reagan’s supply-side economic program, Dole announced his massive tax cut program hoping to recapture some of the pro-growth optimism of the Reagan era.

The shocking announcement of Jack Kemp as his vice presidential choice was another sign of the transformation that was underway. Kemp, a former Congressman and Bush Administration cabinet member, had long feuded with Dole. While they differed on a wide range of issue’s Kemp’s support for affirmative action and his opposition to punishing illegal aliens not only provoked Dole, but most of the Republican establishment as well. And when Kemp endorsed Dole’s rival Steve Forbes in the late days of his failed presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich declared that Kemp was finished in the Republican party. (Dole himself called the incident the “Last time we’re dealing with the quarterback.”)

But what could not be ignored was the fact that Kemp has a huge media presence and national following. A poll issued after the 1992 Republican Convention showed that Kemp was the overwhelming choice favorite to be the Republican presidential nominee in 1996.

And Kemp gives Dole an opportunity to reach out to voting blocks that Dole could not easily reach alone. Kemp is popular with some African American, Latino and Jewish groups. Young Republicans inspired by the romance the Reagan image see Kemp as Reagan’s heir.

Political analysts are asking whether Dole and Kemp will be the “perfect match” or the “odd couple” of 1996. But the results of the first week appear to be positive for the Republican pair. Kemp has even renounced some of his long-held views on issues where he differed from Dole, and has publicly pledged to take a back seat to the head of the Republican ticket. And the excitement created by the Kemp announcement and Kemp’s flattering public praise has even given Dole some needed enthusiasm.

The Kemp announcement marked a turning point in the Dole campaign effort to refashion itself. It created drama and energy that had been sorely lacking up to that point. But it was the Republican Convention itself that completed the process of redefining the Dole campaign.

For more than two years the Republicans have been running a campaign courting the party’s far right wing. One by one the many Republicans who ran in 1996 adjusted their positions on key social and political issues in an effort to win the support of the right wing activists who dominate the party primary process. Riding high on the Republican victories of 1994, Republican candidates painted themselves into an increasingly extremist corner.

Bob Dole won the nomination, but at a price. The delegates and activists who were elected to the Republican National Convention brought with them positions on issues that were viewed as extremist by many Americans. Dole’s efforts to personally intervene in moderating the party’s platform were rebuffed by the delegates. And so the Dole strategy for the convention was to ignore the delegates and the platform and create a show that would redefine the image of the party. Dole, when asked at the convention about the platform replied dismissively that he hadn’t read it.

The speaker’s list at the convention included African Americans, women, advocates of abortion and immigrants. Ignoring the reality that two-thirds of the delegates were men, 92% white, three quarters were self-declared conservatives and almost 20% were millionaires – speakers from the convention podium attempted to portray the Republican party as a party of diversity and tolerance.

The entire affair was perfectly scripted to avoid conflict. For example, former General Colin Powell, whose positions on abortion and affirmative action were anathema to the right wing of the party, was brought to the podium amidst thunderous applause that followed the emotional tribute to Ronald Reagan by his wife Nancy. The scattered boos prompted by Powell’s appearance were drowned out by the cheers that carried over from the Reagan tribute.

The use of techniques that work so effectively on television talk shows and advertising – dramatic personal testimonies and personal appeals, interspersed with musical entertainment – worked to create what some media analysts called a four day long “commercial.”

Tension developed between the television networks and the party early in the week. The networks refused to carry the entire event, limiting their coverage to one or two hours per night. Some speakers and video performances were ignored in favor of television commentators speaking to one another.

Whether due to lack of coverage or lack of interest, television viewership of the convention marked a steep decline over the numbers that watched the 1992 Republican National Convention, and dropped an additional one million viewers each night of the four night affair.

But while media coverage was down, television commentators largely praised the major speakers at the convention. Evening news programs and major newspapers widely praised Powell, Kemp, and the speeches by both the nominee Dole and his wife, Elizabeth.

The delegates, who were reduced to the role of passive audience came to play an obliging role. Right wing leader Pat Buchanan and Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, realizing that they had been outflanked by the Dole campaign and sensing the possibility of a new Republican energy, instructed their supporters not to be disruptive. By Thursday night’s acceptance speeches the convention floor was packed by delegates and supporters who were brought in to fill the hall to capacity, the convention became a wildly enthusiastic audience for Kemp and Dole.

Now the convention is over and Republicans are beginning their campaign to November. They have attempted and to some extent succeeded in infusing their supporters with excitement and energy. By attempting to redefine their image they are also attempting to reach out to independent voters whose support will be critical if they are to close the gap they separates them from victory.

While daily tracking polls still show that the Dole-Kemp ticket lags about 11% behind Clinton-Gore, that does represent an 8% close in the gap that existed before the convention.

That may not be enough, since next week’s Democratic National Convention will give some boost back to the President. But the excitement and drama created by adding Kemp to the ticket and the heavy-handed behavior of Reform Party founder Ross Perot, has helped the Dole campaign steal attention away from Perot’s independent party effort.

This will be a highly charged and competitive partisan race. Despite Republican efforts to moderate their image and President Clinton’s continuing effort to define a centrist “New Democrat” agenda, deep divisions separate the two candidates. Add to that the sharp Republican attacks on the character of the President and First Lady and the enormous stakes of winning the White House in November and this 1996 election promises to be one of the most bitter campaigns in decades.

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