Look closely at the granite features of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole these days, and you'll see the faint contours of a smile. Small wonder. Prognosticators figured June would be Dole's Hell Month, a time when the moderate Senate produced a budget that diluted the House GOP's Contract With America. The predicted result: fresh doubts about the Kansas Republican's Presidential bid and a conservative groundswell for Texas Senator Phil Gramm.
Instead, Dole is basking in the warm glow of what wags call "the Grammless Summer." By maneuvering to keep his rival off the conference panel that's shaping a consensus spending blueprint with the House, Dole has denied Gramm the spotlight. True, the Senate flinched on key Contract items like the House's big tax cut and radical legal reform. But Gramm has failed to turn Dole's pragmatism into a negative with hardliners. "Republicans are now more focused on deficit reduction than tax cuts," says GOP consultant Mark Goodin. "That helps Dole."
"ALL THE RIGHT MOVES." What's more, Dole's calculated shifts to the right on issues such as media morality and affirmative action have weakened Gramm's support among conservative activists--at some cost to Dole's credibility. Another unexpected plus for Dole: the late-starting campaign of Pete Wilson. The California governor once threatened to cut deeply into Dole's moderate support, but a throat operation has kept him out of sight and sound.
To appreciate Dole's surge, consider a June 5-6 Gallup Poll taken for CNN/USA Today. Dole led the GOP Presidential pack with 45%, compared with Gramm's 13%. The survey showed Dole beating President Clinton 50% to 46%. The GOP front-runner also holds a huge lead in New Hampshire, where Gramm has sunk to third place, behind commentator Pat Buchanan.
Of course, it would be folly to assume from early polls that Dole has the race sewn up. Cautions one former aide to several Republican Presidents: "We still don't know if he's a Reagan or a Muskie." But pros who have seen Dole self-destruct in previous White House bids are impressed. "He's making all the right moves," says a top GOP strategist.
Indeed, Dole is doing so well that his chief worry may be...Dole. The moderate has made some expedient conversions that could haunt him. For instance, the bitter foe of supply-side economics has suddenly embraced calls for a tax cut. Likewise, Dole was never known for criticizing popular culture, yet in June he took a Dan Quayle-like blast at Hollywood "depravity."
Dole also tried to woo National Rifle Assn. members by vowing to overturn Clinton's 1994 assault-weapon ban. And despite past support for affirmative action, he now favors eliminating preferential-hiring programs. "I don't think this is a killer issue for us," scoffs Dole pollster Bill McInturff. "Our answer is: `That was yesterday, this is today. Let's talk about America's future."'
Privately, some Dole aides fret that he'll be hammered by GOP opponents for recent policy shifts, then have to square the New Dole with the Old Dole against Democratic critics during the general election. "Clearly, Dole has flip-flopped on issues," concedes one adviser. "That makes him a lot like George Bush--a man without a vision."
Still, the prospects of debating Bill Clinton over flip-flops doesn't exactly make Dole tremble. "Dole's position on things like affirmative action has evolved," says Bill Lacy, Dole's deputy campaign chairman. "But so have other Republicans. The main thing is, he has proven that he will not implode, and he's alone [among the GOP field] in the Presidential Circle. We'll take that for now."