Does Dole Have A Chance?

Dole's tax plan, Kemp, and the show in San Diego may avert disaster, but...

As televised productions go, the Aug. 12-15 Republican convention in San Diego set new standards for political theater. Their spirits lifted by GOP nominee Bob Dole's embrace of both Reaganesque tax cuts and supply-side hero Jack F. Kemp, convention-goers departed San Diego convinced that the long-shot campaign was maybe, just maybe, winnable.

More important for the Dole-Kemp ticket, a carefully scripted convention tableau left millions of television viewers with the image of a party committed to tolerance and inclusion. Although right-wingers made up the bulk of the delegates, once the cameras rolled, they were rarely seen. Crows freshman Representative Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.): "We kept divisive social issues out of the hall." By spotlighting women and minorities, from keynote speaker Representative Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) to New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman to retired General Colin L. Powell, Dole strategists beamed a powerful message to voters: Dole can be trusted to champion compassionate--as in nonscary--conservatism.

Dole repeatedly drove the point home in remarks prepared for his Aug. 15 acceptance speech: "The fundamental issue merely whether the people trust the President, but whether the President and his party trust the people." Unfortunately for Dole, he's not angling for an Emmy Award for Best Political Choreography. He's after the Presidency. And Dole's strategists concede that he still faces a steep uphill climb. Admits a senior aide: "We have precious little margin of error."

Here's why: Despite the convention love-fest, Republicans are less united than they appear. Hardliners don't consider Dole a True Believer and mutter that his supply-side conversion is mere expediency. "Republicans are not Marxists who vote for anyone who says `tax cuts,"' sniffs conservative activist Paul Weyrich. "It'll take more than tax cuts to elect Dole, because many people think he's a Washington hack."

Social conservatives, for their part, sense that Dole is uncomfortable with their issues, from strict abortion curbs to calls for kulturkampf. Even the selection of Kemp causes concern. Kemp's desire to reach out to minorities and oppose curbs on immigration and affirmative-action programs is at odds with their plans to create new "wedge" issues to use against Democrats. "We have a fractured conservative movement," says Texas GOP Chairman Tom Pauken, whose delegation was nearly torn apart by the Christian Right's drive to purge pro-choice Dole supporters. "The splits are getting more difficult to reconcile."

CLINTON CENTRISM. Despite their qualms, conservatives will vote overwhelmingly for Dole come Nov. 5. Their hatred for President Clinton guarantees that. Dole's larger problem is stubborn resistance from women, moderates, and suburban independents. Lured by the President's new centrism, up to 20% of GOP voters have drifted into the Clinton column. Meanwhile, the solid economy and a Presidential values barrage have kept defections of blue-collar Reagan Democrats to a minimum.

At the moment, Clinton has a commanding lead with suburban swing voters. Many are put off by Dole's ties to the gun lobby, Big Tobacco, and anti-abortion forces. "It's death for Dole to be so weak in the suburbs," says Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. Dole aides, however, believe his new emphasis on economic incentives will be boffo in the 'burbs. "Suburban voters tend to be extraordinarily tax-sensitive," says Dole pollster Anthony Fabrizio. "That's going to help us in places like New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois."

Despite Dole's attempt to turn the convention into a political Oprah show, his problems with women voters continue. Unless he can narrow the 20-point gender gap, there's no way he can win. Says New Jersey's Whitman: "We still need to convince [women] that this is not a party of intolerance."

Beyond Dole's woes with specific voting blocs looms the overall challenge of prying votes away from Clinton amid an economic expansion. Dole's answer to worker anxiety is an income-boosting plan built around a 15% across-the-board tax cut and a $500-per-child tax credit. But on the stump, voters go blank when he talks about "the Clinton Crunch." White House aides sneer that the Dole economic plan is so business-friendly--and its benefits so tilted toward the rich--that it lacks credibility as a way to ease middle-class economic angst.

Elitist nonsense, reply the Dole folk. Says Communications Director John Buckley: "Look, this election has just begun anew. Dole has transformed an issueless race in which Clinton passed himself off as a moderate into a debate about the economy." Adds Vin Weber, a senior campaign issues adviser: "This is a debate we're going to win."

That may be, but Dole has very little time to get his campaign in fighting trim. Although he wrapped up the nomination in the spring, Dole failed to consolidate his party base until the convention--months behind schedule. "The economic trends are against us. The calendar is against us," says one Dole adviser. "But if Dole can convey a new compassionate image for the Republicans, we have a chance."

NARROW WINDOW. There's no question that Dole's "kinder, gentler" convention helped his cause. Now, he needs to keep the momentum going. In coming weeks, Dole and Kemp will relentlessly pound home the ticket's promise of big tax cuts while reminding voters of Clinton's tax flip-flops. And Dole will harp on Americans' gnawing unease about crime, drugs, and social decay. For instance, Dole is weighing a new anti-crime package that requires juvenile offenders to work or take mandatory courses. Says an aide: "It's a two-part strategy, stressing economic and personal security. We've got to drive Clinton to the left on taxes and moral issues."

Dole has an opportunity to make the election a real contest. But only if he focuses on his tax-cut message--and his battle plan unfolds with a precision that has not been a hallmark of his campaigns to date. The window of opportunity, moreover, is narrow, and Dole's ability to keep his composure in the difficult days ahead is an unknown. One special nightmare haunting his handlers: looming debates in which he could be overshadowed by Clinton's glibness and Ross Perot's tele-zaniness.

Ultimately, a sizzling Veep and a well-orchestrated convention show can only take Dole so far. To go the distance, he'll have to persuade skeptical Americans to trade one unloved career politician for another in November.

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