• U.S.

CAMPAIGN ’96: Rescue Party

15 minute read
Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

BOB DOLE WON A GREAT victory last week, and it wasn’t in South Carolina. That win was sweet, but necessary and expected, just like North and South Dakota on Tuesday. His greater triumph was a secret one, in a private struggle to settle his fate as it rests in the hands of his party allies. Hidden somewhere, on their desks or in their dreams, every Republican chieftain has a list. They’ve had them ever since Dole began losing primaries, or winning with two-thirds of his party voting against him. They rank the men who could come to the rescue if the whole nominating process melts down and no one has a majority of delegates going into the party’s August convention. Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson even shared his with TIME: Colin Powell, Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett, some mainstream Senator, a nice modern Governor and, at the very bottom, Newt Gingrich. When Dole began winning again last week, he won himself a reprieve. The Governors, for the time being at least, stopped thinking about where to bury him and began scheming about how to save him from the traps that still lie ahead.

That stay of execution came just in time; the Governors have always been at the heart of Dole’s strategy, and he can’t afford to lose them now. He has courted 24 of them successfully for their endorsements, their money machines and above all their power over their delegate slates when it comes time to choose the nominee. But Dole has always had to be careful. Unlike Senators, Governors are not members of his court in Washington, embedded in the sticky rituals of Congress. They are princes themselves, with their own bite-size kingdoms and outsize egos, used to being in charge. Dole’s brigade–George Voinovich of Ohio, Pete Wilson of California, George Pataki of New York, John Engler of Michigan and Thompson of Wisconsin–have a lot in common: they are energetic, well educated, modern and ambitious to a fault. They aren’t really sure how much power they have over this process; they don’t understand exactly how to use it. But that just gets them talking more. As in any good Elizabethan drama, when the king begins to falter, the princes commence to plot.

It was Tuesday afternoon, as the first exit polls from Arizona sank directly into their veins, that the G.O.P. elders clutched their chests and began to howl. Word went out that Dole was running a distant third behind Buchanan and Forbes. G.O.P. leaders in Washington began making hand-holding calls to big contributors and found them in shock. When the Beltway Republicans reached the Governors, they found some so spooked they were thinking of peeling off and finding another candidate to back. Everyone wanted to talk to someone, anyone, inside the Dole campaign. “It was just awful,” said a party paramedic who rushed to the scene by telephone. “Tuesday was the worst.”

That night some of the leading players got to take one another’s temperatures when they gathered at Chicago’s tony Four Seasons Hotel for a Republican Governors Association forum. The draw was rich: Steve Merrill of New Hampshire, Jim Edgar of Illinois, Engler, Thompson and Voinovich, all taking questions and briefing the crowd. Normally it’s all policy. Tuesday night it was almost all politics.

They mused about the shape of the race, but dodged questions about how they might shape it. The Governors had already had to confront the limit of what they can do in public. They were chastened by results in New Hampshire, where Merrill enjoys an 80% approval rating and still could not deliver his state for Dole. Voinovich raised the same concern Tuesday night, and Engler revealed that he could see the Buchanan tide rising in Michigan. But it was clear, said an experienced operative at the session, that the Governors wanted to keep their hands clean, wary of making any move that could hurt them later. Edgar approached her afterward and confessed, “My nightmare is that it’s going to come to us.”

Late that night they finally learned that Dole had actually come in second in Arizona. A strategist who was in on the Governors’ calls before and after was reminded of cattle that had been spooked on Monday, stampeded on Tuesday and arrived in the middle of the week exhausted and dusty and relieved to find themselves at a watering hole. In private discussions as the week went on, Wilson and Engler, who together could control more than 200 delegates, took the lead, urging their colleagues to stay calm, work as a team and dig in their heels for Dole.

Engler will probably be the next Governor to endorse Dole, following George W. Bush this week in Texas. Engler’s agenda is easiest to read. “The guy is doing everything he can,” says a Wilson aide, “to be the Vice President of the United States.” It stands to reason that Engler’s best shot lies in making sure that Dole is the nominee. But even Engler admits to keeping his options open for another week. “What could change all this is Super Tuesday,” Engler told TIME, imagining a Dole collapse next week in the South. “There’s no question that with 31 Governors representing 191 million Americans and eight of the nine largest states, we’re in a strong position to affect the process.”

For the time being they are content to help Dole help himself. Most of them think the Dole campaign is too big, too corporate, too Washington and too monosyllabic. One prominent Dole supporter in the Senate led an effort to put one of his colleagues on the candidate’s plane to improve Dole’s stump speech, to “try to get him to say something more than just ‘God bless America.'” (The Senators settled on Bob Bennett of Utah to do the job.) But Dole’s immediate problem isn’t so much message or organization as money–a genuine irony for the most lavishly financed primary candidate in years. Dole has already spent more than $25 million, thanks to such compulsively extravagant gestures as polling voters in Iowa and New Hampshire almost nightly for two months straight. This not only cost a lot, but the information was bad. Dole demoted his top strategist, fired his pollster and research director and laid off 30 others last week to get his operation in shape. But he will soon be bumping up against the $37 million ceiling for the primary season on candidates who accept federal matching funds.

This is why Dole’s camp has come to view not Buchanan but Forbes as the more dangerous threat. Because Forbes is not accepting federal money, there is no limit on what he is allowed to spend. Dole campaign officials believe that they will have to adopt some highly unconventional approaches to financing the rest of the race. So by Thursday, Dole operatives and the Governors were once more burning up the phone lines, trying to solve the new problem in Bob Dole’s life: how to live well on nothing. The fear is that the campaign will go broke before California, a winner-take-all state with 165 delegates. “That means that Forbes could win out there and nobody goes to the convention with enough delegates to win,” says a participant in the strategy sessions. “California is becoming the circuit breaker.”

This is where the Governors come in. California and New York are big, critical and expensive, and Dole can’t afford to fight it out in both places. Under the law, he is prohibited from raising more money for the primaries, but his delegate slates are not. In each of New York’s congressional districts, Dole delegates can launch their own miniature campaigns, buying ads with tag lines like “Paid for by John Smith, a delegate pledged to Bob Dole.” Many district delegates are themselves officeholders, such as members of Congress, which means they are allowed to dip into their own campaign funds to pay for buttons, bumper stickers, signs and get-out-the-vote efforts.

This strategy does not thrill all of Dole’s followers, who have their own races to worry about. “As a Dole delegate, do I want to spend the money on Dole, or do I want to spend the money on Tom Libous in November?” New York State senator Thomas Libous told the Associated Press. But in expensive states like New York, Dole has little choice but to ask for such favors, and California’s Wilson is expected to try directing a similar fund-raising effort.

Another tactic is to subtly encourage outside groups to spend on Dole’s behalf. Dole’s allies tried this in Iowa and New Hampshire, where a coalition of home builders and Realtors launched ads against the Forbes-style flat tax. That strategy could help enormously in California. Wilson is calling Dole strategist Don Sipple twice a day with hard-hitting ways to break what Sipple pointedly calls Forbes’ “glass jaw” in California on issues like immigration. Here the campaign team has to be careful; they are supposed to keep their distance from these “independent” efforts. But they also have to work fast. Party officials believe such groups would need to raise about $2 million before March 18, when the crusaders would need to hand over money and tapes to local television stations in order to have any impact by March 26, California’s primary day. No wonder there is talk among Dole allies in the state that the candidate may just decide to break through the $37 million spending limit and face the consequences later.

THE PROSPECT THAT NO ONE WILL HAVE sewn up the race by Super Tuesday isn’t lost on the other candidates. Forbes has downsized in a number of states to concentrate on New York, the Midwest and California. He has proved to be a cunning opponent; his victory in Arizona may have turned on his decision to mail out 250,000 letters a month before the primary, explaining how to request absentee ballots. By the time Arizonans flocked to see Buchanan’s road show, many of them had already voted for Forbes. Campaign chairman Bill Dal Col estimates that two-thirds of the total absentee-ballot group voted for Forbes.

Forbes’ flat-tax plan and his libertarian bent on abortion will play well in California, which is another reason Wilson has been warning Dole for weeks about the publisher. Forbes’ base tends to be wealthy social libertarians, but he continues to draw his votes from alienated independents who see Washington as a threat to individual rights and want someone to shake the place to its foundations.

Buchanan is wooing this group too, but with a message that is pitched not at the wealthy but at the working class. At a rally in South Carolina he nearly took the paint off the walls with his mount-’em-up speech. He promises not what he will do as President, but what “we” will do–shut down the border, get out of world organizations, impose tariffs. The result is a subtle but powerful co-opt of the listener. Dole, by comparison, still talks about that guy Bob Dole, as if he were just a stand-in for the real candidate.

Still, ever since his surprising success in Iowa, Buchanan has been faced with a personal dilemma: whether and how to adjust his persona from that of the rowdy creator of a movement to its responsible leader. And so lately he has tried on a new voice. The 600 or so folks who turned up on Wednesday night at the Evangel Cathedral in Spartanburg, South Carolina, were treated to a remarkable spectacle: Patrick Buchanan preaching redemption. Buchanan left political veterans gasping when he borrowed the catechism of Jesse Jackson’s campaign, the Old Testament verse that went with him everywhere: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and heal their land.”

And then he came to abortion, and offered what amounted to a rebuke to the most fiery of the flock. “The way to end abortions,” Buchanan declared, “is to change the human heart, and the human heart is not changed by getting in people’s face with anger and rage; the human heart is changed by love.” This includes, he told them, reaching out to women who have had abortions themselves: “What a woman needs after an abortion is the kind of love and care she did not get before the abortion.”

When it was Dole’s turn the next night to face the pro-life armies of the Christian Coalition, he talked about his voting record, and left it to South Carolina’s popular Governor David Beasley to testify for him. “I’ve sat face to face with Bob Dole,” Beasley told the crowd when he introduced the Senator, as if that were a sit-down with God. What the Governors, each in their turn, have all been trying to say is that they’ve seen Bob Dole where he is best, in the back rooms making the childish ones act like adults, a place where they speak a different language than the verses of the campaign trail. Dole’s hope is that even though Buchanan knows how to throw out the red meat, the Governors can convince people that Bob Dole is the President who will best know how to keep all the other food groups on the table too.

But at least Dole doesn’t have to worry much about Alexander anymore. The former Tennessee Governor’s flimsy showing in South Carolina belied the idea that he would start to win once the race headed South. “We can already feel the buzz disappearing,” said an Alexander senior staff member last week. So did House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In an interview with TIME Saturday evening, Gingrich pronounced Alexander finished. “Lamar had a good clean shot, but when you’re down eight or nine percent, the strategy of waiting for Dole to wear out is not going to work.”

If Alexander fails to sparkle in Georgia and New England this week, says Dole campaign manager Scott Reed, the party bouncers will begin to read Alexander his rights. But even Reed doubts it will work. This is the guy who has walked across states, pleaded his way through 270 fund raisers and suffered through a year and a half of being told he’s a gimmick and a joke and a shadow of Wilson and Powell. He has a long history of not bowing out, and remains defiant now. And what if the Governors try to dry up the money? “They can’t turn off the money,” says Alexander’s senior consultant, Mike Murphy, “because they never turned it on. We’ll keep going until it’s me and Lamar and a minivan, if that’s what it takes.”

This performance is starting to rankle. “I think Lamar believes I’m going to fall off the podium somewhere and he’ll be there for the last rites,” Dole told TIME. “Not going to happen.” But what all the candidates are counting on is the growing evidence that even if Dole stays lucky he will have trouble winning the 996 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination before the convention. According to intricate computer models by Steve Grand of Wilson Communications, if Dole wins Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, most of Maryland, all of Maine, all of Vermont, half of New York, half of Missouri, most of Florida, half of Texas, two-thirds of Illinois, half of Michigan, all of Ohio and almost all of Wisconsin, he still arrives in California with only 634 delegates. Even if he does better than these models (all of Texas, all of New York), he is still almost 150 delegates short. Only California can put him over the top by the end of March.

Which brings all concerned back to the brokered-convention scenario, and their various lists. Arizona Senator John McCain argues that Dole and Forbes would team up before letting some outsider steal home: “Bob could deal with Forbes,” McCain says, by offering some spot “that gets him into the game in Washington.” Like Vice President? “I suppose if you want to be the nominee and that’s the only route, why not?”

As for turning to someone completely new, that prospect dims with every Dole victory–much to the relief of the fretful Governors. Wisconsin’s Thompson admits that neither he nor anyone else really knows how a brokered convention would work: the state party rules are a nightmare, and the Governors are reluctant to even talk about how they could hijack their delegations should Forbes or Buchanan come roaring back. “They’re trying to reassure themselves that this thing will work itself out,” says a participant in Dole’s Friends and Family network. “They all want to talk up the idea that the primaries will produce a solution. They all want to be part of the solution, and they are nowhere near the idea of asking whether it is time to look elsewhere.” But if the campaign slouches toward open convention, the official added, then “it’s going to be every man for himself.”

–Reported by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum/Washington, Nina Burleigh with Buchanan, John F. Dickerson with Alexander and Tamala M. Edwards with Dole

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com