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Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

TO HEAR THEIR ADVISERS talk, you might guess Bill Clinton and Bob Dole are not just running against each other; they are running as each other. Clinton argues for V chips, school uniforms and a balanced budget. Dole pushes a family tax cut and a balanced budget. Even the styles are stolen, each from the other–Dole posing breezily in shirt-sleeves on the steps of an airplane, while Clinton lunges at the chance to go overseas and appear the responsible grownup. Be presidential, Clinton’s aides advise, something that comes more naturally to Dole, who has never been President, than to Clinton, who already is. Be more natural, Dole’s aides plead; let people inside, let the words come out of your mouth, tell them your story, show a little leg, say it, just say it.

The unofficial start of the general election comes at a high point for Clinton, who has been floating above the fray, and at a low one for Dole, who had been having his head handed to him for months by his primary foes. It is not surprising that Dole, whose reserve is at once his greatest weapon and his greatest weakness in a battle with Clinton, had hardly anything to say when his top aides appeared Tuesday night in his ornate Senate office to tell him he had swept eight states and was on his way to the nomination he had sought twice before in vain. “Congratulations,” Dole said to his campaign manager, Scott Reed.

“I think we’re gonna make it,” Reed replied.

And that was it for celebration; it was as if they were back in Kansas and dancing was banned. Besides, there was work to do. Dole’s sweep of Junior Tuesday and the New York primary set him up to win big this week in the South and next week in the Midwest. The delegates were tantalizing enough (392 so far), but what really had Dole operatives drooling was the sweet reward of three straight weeks of nonstop, positive and, above all, free media exposure during March. So it was time, Dole’s aides explained, to “pivot” from Buchanan and Forbes to Clinton and Gore. That meant solving some lingering problems, like the fact that Dole approaches the start of the Big Race with little money and less message and at least a 9-point ditch in the polls.

However, Dole can now count on a little help from his friends, as well as his erstwhile enemies. By Friday, Republican Party chairman Haley Barbour was not just hinting but boasting that he was ready to help the presumptive nominee by underwriting parts of his campaign. As soon as it is feasible, campaign manager Reed hopes to transfer much of the opposition research and field organization to the Republican National Committee, and throw in some Dole travel expenses too. The goal is to preserve what remains of Dole’s $7 million war chest for the California contest.

His cause was aided by the timely deep-sixing of his mainstream rivals, Lamar Alexander and Richard Lugar, who graciously endorsed Dole last week as they departed the scene. Steve Forbes too was disappearing, only more slowly and clumsily. The Dole campaign’s brush with Forbes still staggers Reed. “They very nearly got us,” he marvels of the Forbes camp. “They came very close.” As for Pat Buchanan, he was, if anything, growing more belligerent as he grew less threatening. “We’re going to fight until hell freezes over,” he vowed last week, “and then we’re going to fight on the ice.” Buchanan knows it would take an act of God to give him the nomination now, but he plans to target enough Southern states to win enough delegates to make a nuisance of himself in August. He wants the platform to mirror his campaign: emphatically pro-life, anti-immigration, anti-trade. And he wants a spot in prime time, where he made his mark the last time around.

If Buchanan keeps on torturing the Dole team, it has itself to blame. Reed and Pat’s sister Bay Buchanan were in near cahoots for months trying to force Phil Gramm out of the race. In an astonishing string of secret deals, Reed released dozens of pro-Dole votes in the Alaska caucuses to ensure that Buchanan beat Forbes there; he gave his O.K. when top Louisiana Republicans asked about backing Buchanan in the caucus fight with Gramm; and he handed over thousands of names and addresses to Buchanan in Louisiana (and 12,000 names in Iowa) to help him strike deep in Gramm territory. The plan worked too well; Gramm dropped out early, but Buchanan became a menace. Reed and Bay were back on the phone last week and will be meeting this week. “We can’t let this Buchanan thing get out of control,” Reed says. But that looks less and less likely. “Buchanan now helps Dole instead of hurting him,” says Democratic consultant Bob Shrum. “Now Dole will define himself against Buchanan as well as against Clinton.”

Next comes some message therapy. “The problem with Dole is that he wanders all over the damn ballpark,” says a Republican Senator who travels with him. Dole is historically bad about staying on message, and reluctant to let anyone help. He still does no debate prep; he doesn’t inhale smooth answers to hard questions so that they will pour out naturally when the moment comes. “We have 26 positions on abortion,” complains a close Dole friend. “Every time I hear our answer, it’s a new answer.”

There are message doctors hovering everywhere now. Various Senators, led by Pete Domenici, Al D’Amato and Ted Stevens, began meeting privately weeks ago to figure out how to help. Part of the problem, they realized, was that Dole had no one with him on his plane who could read him the riot act. He had lots of staff but no peers. That was fixed by rotating the designated adult on the plane. “You need someone who can focus his attention on what he ought to be saying,” said a Republican Senator’s aide, “and can look him in the eye when he falls flat and say, ‘Well, that didn’t work.'”

Even some of those conspiring to help him were not sure how to tell him all this. When they finally sat down with him on Feb. 27, D’Amato told Dole that some of his Senate colleagues were so in awe of his authority and prestige that even they did not have the guts to say what they wanted to. “I don’t give a damn what the message is,” D’Amato said. “For all I care, you can go out and say you’re for UFOs. Just say you’re for something.”

Dole’s wife Elizabeth had urged her husband to pick up a line she had been using in her stump speeches about how Clinton vetoed the balanced budget and backed away from welfare reform and vetoed tax cuts, and now it was time to veto Bill Clinton. Dole grabbed it, and it has become a standard part of his remarks. “There is not going to be some moment of epiphany when he wakes up and says, ‘I’ve got it,’ ” said a person involved in the message meetings. “He’ll try a piece, see if it works, then if it does, he’ll keep it. It’s just going to get tighter and tighter.”

But even his top aides admit he needs to work on articulating the rationale for his candidacy. It is one thing to get the country to fire the Commander in Chief; it is quite another to persuade voters to hire someone new. That, they believe, will take a few more weeks of work, primarily with Dole himself, drawing it out of him like serum. “It’s got to come from him,” said a senior Dole adviser. “He has to believe it, because if he doesn’t, it just won’t sell.”

With each day Dole seems more revealing about what happened after he “spilled a little blood in Italy” 51 years ago, about the days when he couldn’t feed himself, bathe himself or go to the bathroom by himself. The riff becomes a direct challenge to Clinton on the empathy front: He says he feels your pain. I know your pain. Dole’s life story is a potent weapon, which his advisers are not sure yet how to deploy.

While Dole faces a set of poll numbers that are not exactly promising, aides have had to come up with an answer: at the moment, they say they prefer the underdog status to a dead heat. The Dole camp is intent on not making the mistake of the 1992 Bush campaign, which tried forever and ever to run a 50-state campaign when it should have focused on a tight handful of battleground states: California, Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Georgia and North Carolina.

With that in mind, Reed has pulled his best operatives out of the earlier primary states and sent them to the Midwest. The only advertising Dole did last week was in Texas and Florida. Meanwhile, Dole turned over his entire primary operations in Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin to the Governors in those states, who are doing the scheduling, planning and advance work for the Dole appearances in the Midwest this week. “There is a handful of states that this race is going to come down to,” said Reed Thursday evening, “and we are going to focus on those states.”

If every move Dole makes from now on is aimed at Clinton, the President will be doing his best to ignore it for as long as he can. No one at the White House, not a soul, will engage in an on-the-record discussion of a Dole-Clinton matchup. Many won’t even do it on background. “Nope,” says adviser George Stephanopoulos. “No, no, no, no, no. Uh-uh.” Clinton’s strategists think it will be a tough, ugly, close election. They have a healthy fear of disaster in Bosnia, eruptions of bimbos, new Whitewater embarrassments, a host of other unpredictables. And they realize that while many of Clinton’s strengths play to Dole’s weaknesses–their man’s love of campaigning is surpassed only by Dole’s discomfort with it–the reverse is also true. That Dole appears reluctant to traffic in his personal tragedy and compresses his public thoughts lends him an aura of trustworthiness when faced with a President far more promiscuous with his confessions and promises.

The fact is the White House does have a campaign strategy, and not talking about it is part of the plan. Rule No. 1: Be presidential. Last year that meant playing the prudent, pragmatic grownup against the disruptive adolescence of Newt Gingrich. This year it means Clinton’s projecting himself as a vigorous, vital, people-loving, curious, future-minded Not-Dole. Since the President won’t get much cooperation from a Republican Congress, he will focus on other strategic alliances rather than push new programs that reek of Big Government–working with business leaders on TV standards, with Governors on welfare reform, with local groups advocating school uniforms. “People don’t want to kill government; they want to fix it,” argues presidential counselor Bill Curry. “They want practical solutions that don’t need a rewrite of the ideological map.”

The biggest fight in the White House is over how to handle the state of the economy. The division runs through the heart of the party. Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy went to the ramparts last month and picked up the bugle that Buchanan has been blowing in Dole’s ear all along. Kennedy talked about wage stagnation and soaring corporate profits, and then he drove in the knife to Clinton’s “values” crusade. “The V chip makes sense,” Kennedy said, “but it is no substitute for college loans. It will not buy clothing or food. When the economy is wrong, nothing else is right.”

There is a faction at the White House, led by Harold Ickes, deputy chief of staff in charge of campaign operations, and including the First Lady, that is desperate for Clinton to embrace that message. Several Democrats are complaining that it is not considered politically correct at the White House to complain about the economy; they see this defense of the status quo as dangerous. At a Monday-night meeting last week, top Labor Department officials and other liberal Democratic operatives grumbled that the White House was blocking any attempt by Labor Secretary Robert Reich to give some voice to workers’ complaints about job losses and declining incomes. “They think it’s morning in America over there,” said an aide to Representative Richard Gephardt. “But most Americans don’t even know what time it is because they are working so hard.”

However, that camp faces fierce opposition from the centrists, led by political adviser Dick Morris, who are much more interested in emphasizing low inflation, low interest rates and reports showing that more than 8.4 million jobs have been created since Clinton took office. The Ickes-Morris rift has only grown over the past few months, to the point where there are almost two complete sets of advisory teams in place. The Morris team is pre-eminent on message, but the Ickes team controls the operations, the logistics of the presidency and the re-election effort, and it can therefore sabotage Morris from the sidelines. “It’s like Noah’s ark,” complains a Clinton adviser. “We’ve got two of everything.”

They continue to feud bitterly. For several months Morris was meeting regularly with the political and communications staff to try to cut down on disputes and miscommunications, but the view of one Morris ally is that the liberal advisers “are better at passive resistance than Gandhi.” Decisions they don’t like get delayed or assigned to one of their allies, or the resources don’t materialize. Now Morris & Co., whose members have bonded together in the face of all the attacks on them, have been told to disconnect themselves more from day-to-day White House business and act as a kind of internal think tank. They continue to meet separately with Clinton, who for his part likes having multiple, conflicting lines of advice.

In the months to come, it will be particularly hard for Clinton to separate his presidency from his candidacy, because the campaign is about to go where no race has gone before: utterly inside the Beltway. Neither Dole nor Clinton can claim the virtues of being an outsider–which means that to a degree not seen in any recent campaign, the battle is likely to be fought in Washington.

That helps explain Dole’s buoyant mood when he returned victorious to Capitol Hill last Tuesday. He was back in his element, and the airtime was free. The networks routinely invite the majority leader to denounce the President on the very driveway of the White House. Even Dole’s second-in-command, G.O.P. whip Trent Lott of Mississippi, who makes no secret of wanting Dole’s job, was wearing his dole for president lapel pin last week. No one could doubt Lott’s sincerity–on several levels–when he said, “We’re all working for Bob Dole to be the next President of the United States.”

With the battlefield now framed by the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, Dole’s Senate staff members have been plotting overtime to lay their traps for the President. They can’t wait to send up yet another version of welfare reform and tax cuts for children, in the hope that Clinton will veto the very positions he ran on in 1992. “You pick some winners, and you pick some losers,” says a senior Dole adviser. “The issues we want for the fall, we go hard on and force Clinton to veto, like crime, welfare, budget and taxes. On others, such as Medicare, that we want off the table this fall, maybe we should just give Clinton what he wants.”

By the end of last week, as the Dow Jones average plunged 171 points Friday, scoring points on the economy became much more complicated for both candidates. The market fell–bad news for Clinton, presumably–because the economy and employment are rising at unexpectedly high rates–good news for Clinton. Republican Dole cannot criticize the one without giving credit for the other. And the Democratic President cannot toast his own success without worrying out loud about the voters who have not benefited from stronger portfolios or fatter paychecks, or both. On economics, both Dole and Clinton will tread carefully, sounding more alike than not for a while. It’s a strength and a weakness that both men share.

–Reported by James Carney, J.F.O. McAllister and Karen Tumulty/Washington, Tamala M. Edwards with Dole and Michael Kramer/New York

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