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BOB DOLE: A Character Out of Shakespeare Goes for the Big Stage

BOB Dole was not about to give up. Back home in Russell, Kan., after service in World War II, he was having a difficult time regaining strength in arms wounded while fighting near the Po Valley in Northern Italy. He couldn't grip normal exercise equipment -- so he turned to his childhood friend Adolph Reisig for help.

''He had me make a cast out of lead for his arm,'' says Mr. Reisig, who at the time was running an auto repair shop. ''I sliced it in half and put hinges on it, so you could take it on and off. It was pretty successful.''

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Every few weeks, after he had grown used to the weight, Mr. Dole would come into Reisig's shop and have more metal attached to the cast. ''He was absolutely determined to rise above his condition,'' Reisig says.

That he has done, by just about any measure. Over a political career that has spanned some 44 years Bob Dole has risen from Kansas county attorney to the United States Senate and a position as one of the most enduring and powerful politicians in America. Today, he officially enters the race for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination. His position is such that the contest may be his to lose.

Of course, Dole has blown big chances before. In 1988, his presidential campaign imploded after winning the Iowa caucuses. Voters eager for change may reject him as a vestige of another era, The Republican That Time Forgot.

Stature and a story

Still, the senior senator from Kansas appears to offer something that his rivals can't: stature. His greatest asset may be not proposed policies, or cash, or polls, but the story of himself. He is a Dust Bowl youth who rose to the heights of power, a prairie conservative tempered by physical handicap, a fierce partisan who, undone by his own memories, has broken down and sobbed on stage.

With all his faults, virtues, ambitions, and history, Bob Dole seems the one character in the GOP race who could have been imagined by Shakespeare.

''He'd very much like to be president,'' says David Keene, a key Dole adviser in 1988. ''But he is not as obsessive about it as he was the last time he ran.''

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Little in his childhood hinted at the path he would follow in life. He was born on July 22, 1923, in Russell, Kan., a middling-sized farm town almost smack in the middle of the state. His father, Doran, ran a creamery and, later, a grain elevator. His mother, Bina, raised four kids, and by all accounts imbued the young Bob with her taste for hard work, symbolized in a favorite phase, ''Can't never could do nothing.''

The late '20s were hard times all across the hardscrabble Midwest. In Kansas, Dust Bowl erosion added to the misery of the Depression; Adolph Reisig remembers that chores often had to be finished early, because the dust made dark fall at 4:30 in the afternoon. The Doles were in the middle of Russell's economic strata. They had food on the table and a roof over their heads, and not a whole lot else.

''Bob always had a white shirt to wear. But I doubt seriously whether he had more than one or two of them,'' remembers Russell Townsley, former publisher of the Russell Daily News.

By high school Bob Dole was a multisport athletic star and popular soda jerk at Dawson's Drug Store. He had a quick wit, even then; Reisig remembers Dole talking their journalism teacher out of a pop quiz, convincing her to hold an ice cream party instead.

Then came the war. By the spring of 1945 Lieutenant Dole was serving in the Army's 10th Mountain Division in Italy. On April 14, he popped out of a bomb crater to retrieve a wounded comrade, as his platoon attacked Germans holed up in a stone farm house on the edge of a field. The next thing he knew, he was in a field hospital himself.

Dole's recuperation took years. Unable to follow his childhood dream of entering medicine, he switched to law, graduating from Washburn University of Topeka Law School in 1952. By then, he had already won election to the Kansas House, as a Republican. He chose his party after a mentor pointed out that in Kansas the GOP predominated among voters, 2 to 1. It was ''an act of pragmatism that would become a trademark of his life,'' writes Kansas City Star reporter Jake Thompson in his biography of Dole. He rose quickly through the political ranks. His upbringing combined with his war experience to produce a drive few, if any, Kansas politicians could match. By the time he ran for Congress in 1960 his network was such that he knew precinct voting results before everybody, even journalists. ''He was a half-hour ahead of the AP [Associated Press] in his tally,'' says Russell Townsley.

Since then his hard-edged personality has sometimes been displayed to poor advantage on the national level. He was Richard Nixon's young Turk in the Senate, defending the administration vociferously even as the evidence of wrongdoing mounted. Picked as Gerald Ford's running mate, he referred to World Wars l and II, Korea, and Vietnam as ''Democrat wars.'' In 1988, beaten in the New Hampshire primary, he scolded George Bush to ''stop lying about my record.''

But today a politician once dismissed as a hatchet man seems positively statesmanlike when compared with his rivals. In most polls, he is the front-runner for the nomination by a wide margin, and does well against President Clinton when matched head-to-head. After all these years, is the Oval Office finally close at hand?

Not everyone thinks so. ''He personifies what the voters in 1994 rejected,'' says Lyn Shaw, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party. ''Dole is absolutely the insiders' insider.''

In the primaries next spring, Dole must attract the party faithful, and in recent years the GOP has become something very different from what it was in his political youth.

The Republican base is increasingly antigovernment, antitax, anti-Washington. If there is one thing Dole is not, it is a self-declared revolutionary on the scale of House Speaker Newt Gingrich or nomination rival Sen. Phil Gramm. His is a small-town brand of Republicanism that stresses fiscal conservatism and distrusts sweeping plans.

For decades Dole, has honed the legislative skills required of a Senate leader. Pushing bills requires a knack for compromise and cajoling. It doesn't include the articulation of a broad vision for the nation. If the presidency is a bully pulpit, then Dole is not much of a sermonizer.

Nor does he evince the sunny optimism of the last GOP president raised in the Midwest, Ronald Reagan. His humor is sharp, ironic, sometimes startlingly self-referential. ''I'll never forget the Dole-Mondale debate,'' he said after his ill-fated run for the vice-presidency in 1976. ''I was supposed to go for the jugular. And I did -- my own.''

If he is to win, Dole likely must sell the nation not a vision of policies but his vision of Bob Dole the man, a conservative with soul. The accretion of his long years as a partisan may make this difficult. When Dole broke down last year while delivering the eulogy at Nixon's funeral, people were startled. The emotion seemed out of character.

But it wasn't the first time Dole has been so overcome. In '76 he and Gerald Ford staged a big campaign kickoff rally in Russell. The VP candidate stood in front of ten thousand locals and talked about his small-town roots. ''And I can recall the time when I needed help, the people of Russell helped,'' he said. Then he covered his face with his good hand and cried.

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