Right about now, Bob Dole's steamroller victory in the GOP primaries should be yielding a handsome payoff. The 72-year-old Kansan's quick win gave him the chance to rest, beef up his campaign team, and fine-tune his message for the fall matchup with President Clinton. Instead, Dole is floundering--out of money, out of breath in the treacherous cross-currents of the Senate, and seemingly out of ideas for shaping a compelling message.
Party leaders say it's way too soon to panic. But Dole's distress is a cause of increasing concern at the GOP grass roots. There, murmurs are spreading about a November blowout and an accompanying "Dole-drag" on the rest of the ticket. Even Rush Limbaugh, normally a rubber-stamp Republican loyalist, has lost patience. In an Apr. 23 radio broadcast, the conservative talk-meister threatened to bolt the party if Dole keeps flip-flopping on issues such as a higher minimum wage.
TAPPED OUT. Party strategist William E. Kristol, in an essay penned for the Apr. 29 issue of The Weekly Standard, was unusually blunt: "Bob Dole is likely to lose," he warned, urging conservatives to shift strategy to prevent "a Dole defeat from derailing the ongoing Republican realignment." Kristol's advice, which has been echoed by such conservative heavyweights as GOP virtues czar William J. Bennett: Republicans should distance themselves from Dole-style pragmatism and wage fall races that stress tax cuts and conservative ideology.
Republicans know that Clinton's tenuous political base offers Dole a decent shot at victory. But right now, party pros are too preoccupied with Dole's meanderings to focus on fall strategy. "What concerns me is that there are a whole lot of people who have decided that this thing is over," says GOP consultant Edward J. Rollins. "That happened to Walter Mondale, and if it happens to Dole, it would be devastating for the party."
There's no question that April has been a wretched month for Dole. New financial disclosure reports show that he has, at best, $2 million to spend on payroll, travel, and his share of the Republican convention in August. The Kansan went through most of his allowable $37 million preconvention war chest fending off Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan. Now, Dole has been forced to shed most of his 230-member staff, forgo media buys, and curb travel. While Dole scrimps, Clinton can tap a $21 million hoard to pay for TV spots in key swing states. "Clinton is using his money advantage to define Dole any way he wants," notes Rollins.
Dole is also paying a price for hanging on to his job as Senate Majority Leader. He reckoned that deft legislative stewardship would underscore his image as a pol who "delivers while Clinton talks." Instead, election-year pressure has made the Senate an unpredictable place, and Dole's reputation has suffered.
IN A BOX. In the space of a few days, he had to pull an immigration bill from the floor to fend off Democratic amendments, lost a vote for tax-deferred medical savings accounts, saw term limits derailed by a filibuster, and got badly outmaneuvered by Democrats who forced consideration of legislation to boost the minimum wage. An opponent of the hike, Dole now concedes the measure may pass.
He hopes to regain some stature by forging an agreement with Clinton over legislation to fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year. On Apr. 24, the White House and GOP leaders announced a $160 billion deal that restores some funds for Clinton priorities such as education and the environment. But the continuous spectacle of Dole failing to muster support for House conservatives' legislative wish-list or having to compromise with Clinton is troubling party regulars. Says GOP consultant Eddie Mahe Jr.: "As long as Clinton and his minions on the Hill refuse to let anything happen, Dole loses every day. He can't continue like this."
Dole seems determined to run his way nonetheless--juggling Senate duties while he tries to sharpen the contrasts with the President in a series of speeches. Dole's first salvo came on Apr. 19, when he lambasted Clinton for appointing "liberal judges." In coming weeks, he'll address declining morality and the economy. But Republicans concede that Dole has yet to find a cutting issue to close the gap with Clinton.
Dole's failure to make Americans' job worries work for him is a nettlesome problem for his campaign. In May, he'll troop to the Detroit Economic Club and seek to link workers' economic anxiety and the growing phenomenon of two-earner households with a Clinton economy that Dole claims is throttled by taxes and overregulation. "The economy was growing at 4.3% in the quarter when Clinton was elected, yet it grew at only 0.5% in the fourth quarter of '95," says a Dole operative. Dole's remedy: tax cuts and smaller bureaucracy.
His prescription is popular. An Apr. 9-10 CNN/USA Today poll found that 64% of Americans think taxes are too high. Trouble is, few voters seem ready to blame Clinton, since the economy has grown steadily throughout his tenure. "At the heart of Republican pessimism about Dole," says Alan Heslop, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, "is the realization that the economic issue is simply dead for him. Yes, there is anxiety about layoffs, but most of the anxious side with Clinton."
FIRING BLANKS. That could force Dole into ever harsher attacks on suspect Democratic values and on the related topics of law and order and Democrats' fondness for quotas. An assault on Clinton's character flaws, and the contrast with Dole's constancy and patriotism, is crucial to the strategy. But here, too, Dole is still firing blanks. Under the guidance of Dole crony Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), the Senate Whitewater hearings may have become counterproductive. Despite the GOP inquiry, a Mar. 15-17 Gallup poll found that 56% of those surveyed think Whitewater is irrelevant to Clinton's ability to be President.
So how to snap out of the Dole-drums? "It'll take the character issue, with something like his-and-hers [Whitewater] indictments, or a foreign-policy blowup in some place where the White House has committed U.S. troops," says Heslop. Party pros add that Dole's tough barrage on values, coupled with a snazzy, Buchanan-free convention, could also close the gap. But time is short, GOP partisans concede. And so far, Dole hasn't used his spring respite to do much more than raise doubts about his ability to go the distance in November.