• U.S.

BEATING THE DOLE-DRUMS

15 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

ON THE WALL OF BILL LACY’S office at Dole campaign headquarters, a huge calendar keeps track of the strategist’s obsessions. In each box, for each day, is a handwritten note of where Bob Dole will be campaigning. Chicago Bulls games are marked in red ink. And at the top of the page marked November, there appears in green, handwritten letters a haunting apparition: ??POWELL??

It wasn’t much fun last week for the Dole brigades, watching their leader juggle the chain saws of the budget battle in Washington and next week’s straw-poll showdown in Florida, only to have the spotlights beam around the clock on a man in a basement on the phone. That Colin Powell in seclusion could upstage Bob Dole in full throttle, and every other candidate as well, said as much about the front runner’s weakness as about the reluctant general’s strength. In the privacy of the Dole camp, the realization is growing that unless they recruit some new talent, sharpen their message and above all figure out the vision thing, the unofficial front runner is going to remain None of the Above.

Though Powell’s close friends and advisers insisted last week that this was no clever striptease, that the general truly hadn’t made up his mind about running, they also agreed that he had better do it soon. “He can’t let this go on,” fretted one intimate. By the end of the week rumors were growing that an announcement might even come this week. The bookmakers had assumed that Powell wouldn’t declare before the Nov. 18 Florida straw poll, since so many delegates are already committed, and an entry immediately after would either spoil a Dole win or capitalize on a surprise loss. But the pressure to move sooner was coming from all sides. While some friends urged him to jump in so they could get the fund raising and organization going, a group of conservatives including Dole crony David Keene called a press conference to denounce him not just as a closet liberal who would split the party but also as a cautious careerist.

Even though most of the clamor is wildly positive–coming from hopeful voters, eager party activists and a press corps desperate for a more interesting race to cover–Powell is not a man who likes to rush his decisions. His heuristic method, as he described it in his autobiography, is to “dredge up every scrap of knowledge I can…call people [and] read whatever I can get my hands on.” Notoriously–even obsessively–cautious, he has played this game deftly so far. By consulting with the pillars of his party, with former Presidents Bush and Carter, with campaign veterans like Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett, with his Pentagon mentors Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci, he has gained their insight while also enlisting their troops.

Powell has also been on the phone to possible members of his motley financial team like Ronald Lauder, an heir to the Estee Lauder fortune, Wall Street dealmaker Ted Forstmann, Bill Cosby and especially Powell’s cousin Bruce Llewellyn, one of the wealthiest blacks in the country. He wanted to know how much he would need to raise to mount a challenge to Dole; they said about $10 million between now and the February starting gun. Given his allies and stature, that wouldn’t be hard, with a series of major dinners in about 30 cities. What would be tricky is organizing the drive at the same time that Powell is building a field organization, honing a message and gathering endorsements. “Fund raising for Powell,” said G.O.P. fund raiser Peter Turpeluk, “is going to be like managing an orgy.”

By last week so many party heavyweights were so eager to join the fight that the momentum that was once exhilarating was starting to feel a little dangerous. If he decides to run, the expectations will be perilously high for a novice campaigner. And more important, if he is inclined not to run, it will become harder each day to protect his reputation and his party’s prospects for winning without him.

That’s why hard-eyed observers took note of some subtle shifts last week. First, the buzz among the unaffiliated Powell operatives has quieted down. The people who had been contacted three weeks ago about a Powell bid have heard nothing in the way of alerts since. If he isn’t in fast, goes the thinking, he is almost surely out. Several have likened the decision to marriage: either you know you’re in love or you aren’t anywhere close.

Then there is the historical factor: the experience of recent campaigns suggests that no normal person who takes the time to think clearly through the prospect of running would decide to do it. The accounts of his wife Alma’s fear for their privacy and his safety are not overstated, says a longtime family friend. Stories about her use of antidepressant medication wounded the Powell camp. A family member is blunt about her attitude toward a presidential run: “Alma doesn’t want to hear anything about it.”

As a result, suggestions that he is cool to a bid spread like wildfire through Republican circles last week, which had to come as a bitter comfort to Bob Dole. Here is a man who, if the polls are right, could lose the job he wants so much to a man not sure he wants it at all. The whole Powell drama has been one long nightmare for Dole, especially as leader of a party that is rarely inclined to flirt with renegades or derail front runners. Dole has polled Republicans nationally about Powell. “Like to know what he’s up to,” he recently told a senior adviser. He told a lobbyist in a private meeting last week that the press will cut Powell “off at the knees” if he gets into the race, that a Dole-Powell ticket, as an alternative, would be “fine with me” and that he wants to finish the budget debate soon because “I need to get out on the campaign trail.”

But he has carefully avoided attacking Powell, beyond noting with characteristic sarcasm that the Pentagon general would be right at home talking about farm-support prices in Iowa. Alone among major candidates, Dole must always play nice, having fully exorcised the Mean Bob Dole who allegedly possessed him in past campaigns. So when there are knives to sharpen, he is forced to depend on surrogates; the Powell camp privately grumbled that the harsh conservative attacks and nasty rumors were being orchestrated by Dole loyalists. The Dole camp denied the charge.

Dole’s top advisers meanwhile were polling and planning and desperately spinning about how the general’s presence in the race would actually help Dole, by forcing him to sharpen up his message as the true conservative choice. But out in the field, Dole’s operatives were finding that they had a different problem on their hands.

There was a town meeting in Carroll, Iowa, last week in which normally reliable applause lines fell flat. “Tough crowd,” winced Nelson Warfield, Dole’s campaign press secretary. There were Rotary Club breakfasts in Manchester, New Hampshire, after the first big Republican debate, where an informal vote yielded a landslide: for Undecided. Everywhere they go, Dole’s minions hear a refrain that has little to do with the spectral presence of Colin Powell. “I can get Bob Dole to call you personally,” an eager Dole staffer told Richard Albertson, an undecided delegate to next week’s perversely important straw poll in Florida, which Dole himself has called “the big political event of the year for us.” Albertson retorted, “I don’t need to talk to him personally. I don’t need to have my ego stroked. I just want to know what he believes.”

This has become Dole’s dilemma: the only thing the candidate has to fear is the candidate himself. After 44 years in public office, during which he has taken a stand and fought for votes on every major issue of the past half-century, even some supporters say they don’t know what he stands for. It is a politician’s worst nightmare: Dole’s own internal polls show that voters know what Pat Buchanan believes in, what Phil Gramm would fight for. A senior adviser to the Dole campaign was brutal in his private assessment: “If you ask Dole today, ‘What’s your message?’ he’ll say, ‘Tenth Amendment, family values, preserve, protect and defend.’ He’s got the mantra down–it just doesn’t mean anything.”

As a result, with less than 100 days to go before the Iowa caucuses, Dole’s grip on the polls in key states is slipping, his message remains fuzzy and his appeal lies in being the least objectionable of the candidates running–so far. “They haven’t answered the question, ‘What is this campaign about?'” says one G.O.P. consultant. “Dole’s answer is, ‘It’s my turn. I deserve it.’ But that isn’t enough. “

It certainly isn’t enough to protect Dole’s status as heir apparent. Polls last week were indicating that while Dole would narrowly beat Powell for the Republican nomination, only Powell could beat Clinton in the general election. That scenario leaves a gaping hole in Dole’s game plan, which depends, among other things, on his being able to argue that he’s the most electable Republican candidate in a field of unknowns and extremists. If Powell doesn’t run, Newt Gingrich has often said he just might. Last week in an interview with TIME, he repeatedly hinted that Dole may not be comfortable as the leader of the revolution. “I think he’s effective at it,” Gingrich said. “Whether he’s comfortable, you’d have to ask him, but he’s certainly effective…There seems to be a relaxed, comfortable effectiveness, which is very real. Now whether or not, inside himself, that fits his zeitgeist, I haven’t a clue.”

With Gingrich too in the wings, the Dole campaign is running scared. “It’s the job of the front runner to be disciplined and put the nervousness aside and stay on message,” goads Charlie Black, Phil Gramm’s general chairman. “But they’re panicked and they’re overreacting to a lot of things.” A peek inside the vast, well-oiled Dole operation shows signs of fear and frustration. Campaign sources say that Dole booted his top field organizer, Jill Hanson, off his campaign plane and narrowed her portfolio in the wake of the disastrous tie with Phil Gramm last August in the Iowa straw poll–a phony event that became news only when Dole didn’t win. In addition, to boost his standing in Iowa and Florida, last week Dole finally deployed one of his most effective weapons, his relentless wife Liddy, sending her out on a nonstop, three-week blitz around the country.

Finally, Scott Reed, the Dole campaign manager, is trying to recruit a new messagemeister and some Designated Thinkers who can punch up Dole’s listless stump speech. Reed has been trying to improve it since September, but has been unable to find the right person for the job. Several of the people Reed has sounded out for help recently are holding out–for Powell. And Dole insiders wonder whether Dole would even listen to anyone new. As a senior adviser put it, in the classic campaign argot of nouns-as-verbs: “What good is a guru Dole isn’t going to guru from?”

Nowhere is the vision problem more apparent than in Florida’s conservative Panhandle. “I was surprised by the lack of interest of any kind in Dole among the grass-roots types who supported me,” says first-term Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough. As in many other parts of the state, Dole has a secure grip on the party machinery, but that may not be enough. “The hard-core party people here support Dole,” says Dr. Frank Biasco of Pensacola, a Republican state committeeman from Escambia County. “The ranking party officials are predominantly for Dole. But as far as I can tell the rest of the delegates are predominantly for Buchanan.”

That is especially devastating given the resources that Dole, like his opponents Gramm and Lamar Alexander, has been pouring into the Sunshine State in advance of the coming straw poll. Of all promiscuous primary rituals, these polls can do the most to torture front runners: because no real convention delegates are at stake, they are mainly useful for candidates to test the local party organizations. The straw polls only make news when the front runner stumbles–which can include winning by a smaller margin than expected.

Florida has taken on a special weight this time around, not just because it is the fourth most populous state, but also because it is a key battleground on Super Tuesday, after Iowa and New Hampshire have winnowed the G.O.P. field. It will also be vital in the general election, when Clinton will surely hope that Republican votes against Medicare might help him carry the state, offsetting expected losses elsewhere in the South.

That helps explain why the 3,500 delegates who will be voting Nov. 18 have become some of the most popular Republicans around. Every day their mailboxes bulge with express-mail packages, letters, surveys, signed pictures, campaign videos, candidates’ books and cassettes of the candidates reading them aloud. All the campaigns are accusing the others of vote buying. (One undecided delegate told TIME that a worker for the Dole campaign offered to pay the cost of her hotel room in exchange for her pledging to Dole.) Certainly the amounts being spent are astounding for such an early contest. At a convention last month of the Florida Federation of Republican Women, Dole organizers replaced the customary canapes with shrimp, sliced lobster tails and strawberries dipped in white and dark chocolate to look as though dressed in tuxedoes, nesting beneath a cream-puff tree. For party favors, there were Godiva chocolates and Crabtree & Evelyn bath oil–not to mention a live band and a male ballroom dancer, available for waltzing.

After stumbling in Iowa, the Dole team is taking no chances. Dole’s camp has convinced the three or four Orlando hotels that will house straw-poll delegates to run the 15-minute Dole video on their in-house television systems. Explains Mike Murphy, Alexander’s senior campaign consultant: “They’ve all told [Scott] Reed, ‘Don’t mess up again.’ So everybody who walks into Scott’s office says, ‘How about free balloon rides at five grand? Sign here.'” After all, says Murphy, “If Dole loses, nobody is going to remember that Reed saved twenty grand.” Reed put it this way: “We’re an aggressive campaign.”

Among delegates who are still up for grabs, Dole’s strengths and weaknesses are endlessly debated. Tina Pratt Hurley, 30, an attorney in Fort Lauderdale, is a die-hard conservative who favors lower taxes and opposes affirmative action (“No one ever helped me”). “My No. 1 priority is to have someone beat Clinton, so you want to go with a winner instead of blindly following someone who may do a better job,” she says. But she is skeptical about Dole. “He is the most political of the candidates,” she says, “and he jumps back and forth on some issues. He’s a compromiser. I don’t want someone who will fold if the pressure is on.”

But party stalwarts typically value results over consistency, which helps explain why Dole is still the favorite to win the straw poll with as much as 40% of the vote, and has been getting ready to announce a new round of big-name endorsements to nail down the undecided. “I’m for Bob Dole because he’s experienced,” said Fort Lauderdale delegate Ruth Frawley. “We need a President who knows the ins and outs of Washington.”

The irony for Dole, of course, is that every effort he makes to win the Florida contest just makes the auction seem more important and thus lifts the bar even higher. So it was dazzling to watch the contortions of his staffers as they tried to lower the expectations they had done so much to raise. Gramm and Alexander, the Dole campaign spin goes, are both Southerners competing on their home field, and anything short of victory for Gramm is a major loss. “We’re trying to sort of invade their territory and battle them on message and organization,” says Warren Tompkins, the senior Southern consultant for the Dole campaign. But Gramm campaign spokesman Gary Koops offers a pointed rejoinder. “Don’t forget it was Dole who said Florida would be the big political event of the year. The fact that he is backing away from it fits in with the whole desperation scenario.”

To prevent what they assume will be inevitable defections to Powell if he runs, Dole’s agents are already telephoning supporters across the country, tightening their links to people whose backing they think is shaky. They are also boasting of important–and impending–new endorsements by Republican governors. And if Powell doesn’t run, Dole has readied market-tested TV ads attacking Gramm. Meanwhile, the Dole campaign has been getting an assist from an unusual quarter: the White House. Terrified of a Powell entry and praying for an easier opponent, the Clinton White House looked like it was staging photo ops for the Dole campaign. At this point, Dole will take his friends wherever he can find them.

–Reported by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Michael Duffy/Washington, John F. Dickerson/Orlando and S.C. Gwynne/Panama City

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