Citizen Dole: Too Middle, Too Soon?

For a while, Bob Dole's game plan seemed to be working smoothly. First, he'd firm up the Republicans' conservative base by embracing tax cuts, attacking liberal judges, and opposing gay marriages. Later, he would follow the advice of his mentor, Richard M. Nixon, and woo the centrist swing voters crucial to capturing the White House.

But Dole is not one to follow neatly packaged scripts. Before ever solidifying his right flank, the lifelong consensus-builder is rushing to the political middle. His clumsy attempts to insert a GOP platform provision calling for tolerance on abortion ended up angering activists on both sides of the divisive issue. Then, in his Senate farewell speech on June 11, he lauded liberal icons George S. McGovern, Hubert H. Humphrey, and Edward M. Kennedy, while embracing favored Democratic programs such as food stamps. The upshot: Hardcore conservatives are once again suspicious that their Presidential standardbearer is as squishy at the core as, well, Bill Clinton.

Dole's tack reflects the desperation of a campaign far behind in the polls--as well as the candidate's own centrist instincts. But the retired Kansas senator is playing a dangerous game. "There's a mad scramble for the middle, but Bill Clinton has beaten Bob Dole there," says Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker. Worse, Dole's shift could cost him GOP foot soldiers. "It's very high risk," says Atlanta pollster Claibourne Darden. "It could deflate enthusiasm on the right and may even prompt a protest candidate."

Even before he stirred up an intraparty scrum on abortion, Dole seemed to be distancing himself from party conservatives. On economics, he refused to be hurried into a massive supply-side tax cut, expressing concerns about its effect on the deficit. And on social issues, he said he might tap a running mate who favors abortion rights and affirmative action.

Dole's repositioning blew up on him when he tried to broaden the GOP platform on abortion. He still favors a constitutional amendment banning most abortions. But hardline abortion foes rebelled when Dole told them that the tolerance clause would be included in the platform's pro-life section--and not as a throw-away line in its preamble. Dole aides say the campaign is simply borrowing from language Ronald Reagan used in the 1980 platform. But even some supporters are worried. "I don't understand what he is doing," says Iowa Governor Terry E. Branstad, a pro-life Republican. Anti-abortion activists are promising a messy floor fight at the San Diego convention. And some hardliners are redoubling efforts to persuade Dole primary rival Patrick J. Buchanan to mount an independent challenge.

Some political observers think they know what Dole is up to. They figure he's following the same strategy that carried Virginia Senator John W. Warner to a landslide victory over a supply-side economist in a June 11 GOP primary. Warner won support from moderate Republicans, independents, and Democrats who feared his opponent's ties to the Christian Right and gun activists. University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato says Dole's strategy is to appeal to suburban independents and Clinton-leaning Republicans by acting like "a tough, courageous leader willing to stand up to extremists." Besides, conservatives won't bolt, says one Dole insider. "They have one choice: Bob Dole."

That might be Dole's hope. But if he doesn't pursue his plan skillfully, he could end up looking like another pol with his finger to the political wind. And that means that Dole's attacks on Slick Willie in the White House will fall flat if he comes across as Bobbing Bob.

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