Saturday, Mar. 25, found Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole doing what comes naturally: talking politics to a group of friendly executives. Dole dropped by an American Textile Manufacturers Institute meeting in Palm Beach, vowing to give the nation the steadfast leadership he feels it lacks under Bill Clinton. "There's one more call to service for my generation," Dole said gravely, "one more mission."
The crowd loved it. "He looks like a President, he acts like a President--and he's going to be a President," gushed Senator Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), who introduced the Kansan. Dole paused only briefly to bask in the acclaim. Then, a car whisked him off for a weekend of R&R at his nearby condo.
Perhaps Dole would have been better advised to chuck his cabana outfit and book a flight to New Hampshire. Because while he savors the leisurely life of the front-runner, rivals for the '96 Republican nomination are planting dynamite under his chaise lounge. Dole, who is set to enter the race on Apr. 10, leads the GOP field. But he is coming under increasing pressure from the GOP's left and right flanks--pressure that could yet trigger a free-for-all that might deprive Republicans of the only candidate they have who bests President Clinton in the polls. Dole led Clinton, 52% to 44%, in a recent Los Angeles Times matchup.
The fiercest challenge comes from the right, where Texas Senator Phil Gramm is hustling hard. Take Florida. While Dole coasted, Gramm blitzed the state. Over two days, he stopped in Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and Naples before flying to San Diego to give a rousing Sunday speech to the archconservative California Republican Assembly.
To complicate matters, Dole now faces heavyweight competition from the moderate side of the party. During Dole's Florida sojourn, California Governor Pete Wilson kicked off an East Coast tour that included New Hampshire. Wilson is itching to join the race, casting himself as a pol who reinvented government while Dole and Gramm were jawing about it in Congress.
EARLIER PRIMARIES. Theoretically, there is no problem with Republicans having three top-ranked contenders. (Also in the wings: former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander, Senators Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and TV pundit Patrick J. Buchanan.) But the squeeze on Dole is a challenge to GOP power brokers' hopes that the contest could be settled quickly and bloodlessly. To promote that end, the party front-loaded its nominating process, moving up such key primaries as New York (Mar. 7) and California (Mar. 26). The result: In a six-week span, 70% of all delegates will be awarded.
At first glance, Dole seems ideally suited for the standard-bearer's role. The Majority Leader's job gives him massive exposure. And though he is a pragmatist, he has made his peace with right-wingers by backing a capital-gains tax cut and hardening his stance on gun control and set-aside programs (table).
Dole has jumped on the downsizing-government bandwagon, calling for the elimination of four Cabinet departments. And though he considers the House GOP Contract With America gimmicky, he has struggled to push its provisions in the more moderate Senate. There, he has stumbled. He was unable to pass the House-approved balanced budget amendment and lacks the votes to enact term limits or a big tax cut. "If Dole can't deliver, it will come back to haunt him," says Rice University political scientist Earl Black.
Dole still is struggling to shape his message. His speeches, rambling paeans to "leadership," lack a clear rationale for his candidacy. But that may not matter if his political strategy works. It depends on victories in Iowa (Feb. 12) and New Hampshire (Feb. 20), followed by quick wins in New York, South Carolina, and Ohio, where he has snagged key endorsements. "Voters need a reason to dump Dole as the front-runner," says William B. Lacy, Dole's deputy campaign chairman. "If he's positioned as a moderate conservative, they won't find it."
Gramm, conversely, is going after hard-liners by styling himself as Ronald Reagan's heir. No matter how far Dole shifts to the right, Gramm is one hop ahead: He wants to freeze discretionary spending, chop "corporate welfare," and ban affirmative action. He is set to hammer Dole and Wilson for past tax hikes, and his hard-edged themes resonate with conservative activists, gun owners, and the Christian Right. Gramm's first hope for a breakthrough is New Hampshire. But his core support lies in the Mar. 12 Super Tuesday round of Southern primaries.
STRADDLE CANDIDATE. Wilson's task is trickier. Relying on such longtime benefactors as California developer Donald L. Bren and Chevron Corp. CEO Kenneth T. Derr, he aims to raise $18 million for a '96 run. But Wilson's dawdling led some backers to sign up with other candidates. Among them: Bay area business exec Sam Bamieh, who's raising money for Alexander. "I pleaded with [Wilson] not to run," Bamieh says. "He'll embarrass himself." Cash aside, Wilson needs to quickly build an infrastructure in states where he has spotted opponents a year's lead time. GOP pros say his past reliance on massive media campaigns won't be much help in Iowa and New Hampshire, where grassroots organizing is key.
Still, Wilson squeezes Dole by appealing to his centrist constituency. As an abortion-rights champion, he hopes to mobilize suburban, pro-choice voters. At the same time, he appeals to hard-liners with tough positions on crime, immigration, and racial quotas. This left-right fusion may not play well in New Hampshire, though, so Wilson will have to break through in Massachusetts or a moderate Midwestern state if he is to be viable by the time the California primary rolls around. "Wilson is the Straddle Candidate," says John Petrocik, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles. "At heart, he's a moderate, [but] he can talk about the same social policies that Buchanan talks about and not seem polarizing."
With the stakes rising, it won't be long before Dole, Gramm, and Wilson start duking it out. The most likely to begin the brawl: the pugnacious Gramm. He "may try to make the contest into an ideological war because he's telling conservatives he's the real McCoy," says GOP pollster Fred Steeper. If that happens, all bets on a safe and sane Republican primary season are off. And Bob Dole's stately procession to the nomination could turn rocky indeed.
THE BIG THREE: WHERE THEY STAND ON THE ISSUES
-- ECONOMIC POLICY Asserts he would slash domestic programs. Still, he has often fought for Texas pork, such as the supercollider. Backs Contract With America tax cuts, but says tax breaks ought to be paid for. One source of savings: "corporate welfare" subsidies.
-- SOCIAL POLICY Strong foe of abortion, but doesn't think Congress should make abortions illegal. Backed California's move to cut off aid to illegal immigrants, but won't support national sanctions. Promises an order to overturn federal affirmative-action rules. Opposes all gun control.
-- ECONOMIC POLICY A lifelong pragmatist, Dole often has backed budget deals that raise taxes. Favors cuts to capital-gains and middle-class taxes. Failed to muster Senate vote for balanced-budget amendment.
-- SOCIAL POLICY Opposes abortion, though anti-abortion movement doubts his commitment. Led drive to revamp 1994 crime bill by stripping out social spending and toughening penalties. Supports affirmative action, but has agreed to "review" preferential hiring policies.
-- ECONOMIC POLICY Has pushed for deep spending cuts--accompanied by tax hikes. His 1991 $7.5 billion tax increase still infuriates right-wingers. He has tried to mollify critics by championing a 15% state tax cut.
-- SOCIAL POLICY Pro-choice, has backed gay-rights measures and some forms of gun control. As governor, led drives for tough mandatory-sentencing laws, welfare cutbacks, and deep slices in education. Backed Proposition 187.