Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Departure allows Kansan to sharpen his message, but he won't be an 'outsider'

Hill Leadership Hunts as 'Citizen Bob' Stumps

By leaving the ungraceful business of Washington lawmaking, Bob Dole is now free to sharpen the focus of his presidential campaign and tell more of the story of his life.

But it won't be easy for the senator to suddenly reinvent himself as "citizen Bob" - an ordinary Kansan wrapped in the Truman-like fabric of prairie populism.

About these ads

Mr. Dole is, after all, the longest-serving Republican leader in the Senate. His residential address is the Watergate. His first name, to those around him, is Senator; his dog's is Leader.

"People always look at Bob Dole as a senator, and I don't think he is about to shed that image," says John Cogan, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. "But I don't think that's his intention. This transforms his campaign into a campaign for the presidency rather than specific forms of legislation. It is an indication of his seriousness. Most will recognize that it takes a man of character to resign."

John Whitehurst, a California-based Democratic strategist, is less delicate. "This attempt at political jujitsu - of casting himself as an outsider and Bill Clinton as an insider - demonstrates to what degree Dole is set to go to get elected," he says. "It is the most political move this politician could make."

Dole's move to step down from Congress to devote himself fully to the task of seeking the White House is a rare and dramatic gesture of personal sacrifice. But is was also, analysts agree, the move of a shrewd politician who knew he needed to do something dramatic to shake up a faltering candidacy.

He'd been carrying his speech around for weeks, according to aides. Despite all the advice from colleagues and advisers that he not try to be majority leader and Republican nominee at the same time, Dole held on.

It was Sen. Tom Daschle, the minority leader from South Dakota, who evidently got to the Kansan. When Mr. Daschle threatened to shut down the Senate with filibusters if Republicans didn't let Democrats offer legislative amendments, Dole finally accepted that his advisers were right.

No one, however, expected him to walk away from an institution that in many ways had become his identity. Yet the move is consistent with the course of his life: Dole does things on his terms.

About these ads

He walked when medical experts said his war wounds would forever prevent him from doing so. He worked 20-hour days to earn his constituents' respect rather than their pity. Now he'd risk all for the presidency, "with nothing to fall back on."

There are things to be gained from such a strategy. Dole, who took his revamped campaign show on the road Thursday with a swing through Chicago, can chart his own course now, independent of the congressional agenda. He can steer the party away from its divisions over social issues by concentrating more on tax cuts to the middle class. He can keep the nation focused on President Clinton's character problems.

But there are risks, too, in trying too hard to be "just a man." Character is a negative issue. To juxtapose his integrity against Clinton's means running a negative campaign, to which voters are becoming increasingly adverse.

Furthermore, Dole's strength isn't just his character, it's his record as a leader of Congress. His appeal isn't that of an average man, a peer, but of a national leader. He can leave the Senate, but the Senate remains the cornerstone of his credibility.

"The whole point to Bob Dole's candidacy is his enormous store of experience," says John Pitney, a political scientist at the Claremont McKenna College in California. "He can talk now about the backyard, of himself as a son of Russell, Kan., but Dole is not going to become Mr. Smith."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.