As Opposition Leader and Potential Candidate, Dole is Extremely Busy

July 25, 1993|By JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Outside an elevator in the U.S. Capitol, shirt-sleeved Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole stops to chat with two student tourists, one from Louisiana and the other from Ohio, before moving on to his nearby office. Kidded about this bit of electioneering with two youths who can't yet vote, he grins and says: "Yeah, but their parents can."

Bob Dole is inordinately busy these days hustling votes, whether it is among fellow Republicans on the Senate floor to block key parts of President Clinton's agenda or outside the chamber and around the country in a whirlwind of raising funds and confidence among the Republican Party faithful. Since the first of this year, he has visited 27 states, some of them more than once.

The two activities are closely tied. In the Senate, he is focused on developing and leading the Republican Party effort to paint Mr. Clinton as just another tax-and-spend Democrat who will be a liability to Democrats in next year's congressional elections.

And on the dinner circuit he is cheerleading the GOP's chances in those elections to make deep inroads into the Democratic majority, especially in the Senate. There, seven more Republicans would give the party control -- and make Bob Dole the majority leader again, as he was from 1984 through 1986 under President Ronald Reagan.

If Mr. Dole succeeds in the latter endeavor, however, he will be creating a political dilemma for himself. As a creature of the Senate, he will be back on top -- where many of his friends say he wants to be and was happiest in his last tour as majority leader. If there is anything that is likely to persuade him not to run for president again, these friends say, that's it.

Talking about what might keep Bob Dole from seeking the presidency a third time is a commentary on how far speculation, and his expressed interest, have come since the beginning of the year. Whether it is because of Mr. Clinton's shaky start or Mr. Dole's own awareness that he suddenly is sitting in his party's catbird seat, he is clearly moving closer to a 1996 presidential candidacy.

"I'm keeping my options open," Mr. Dole says in the standard answer.

But his actions belie any such passive posture. Among those 27 states he's trekked to this year are Iowa "six or seven times" and New Hampshire, sites of the first presidential caucuses and presidential primary of 1996.

"I like Iowa," says the man who beat television evangelist Marion G. "Pat" Robertson and George Bush there in 1988.

Meanwhile, he jokes, "I go out and tell people I'm the senior advance man. I'm coming out for all these other guys, and I list them all" -- Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp and others. "I want people to know there are a lot of good candidates out there. It's no secret -- some of these guys are already running for '96."

While Mr. Dole may wait until after the 1994 elections to announce whether he'll seek the White House again, he isn't waiting to measure his appeal and to tap into the fund-raising boon that comes with being his party's Senate leader and the single most identifiable spokesman.

Mr. Dole's political action committee, called Campaign America, has raised $1.5 million and, he says, is going "gangbusters."

Right now the money goes to Republican candidates for the Senate, House and local offices but measures his potential for funding another presidential race in 1996.

Mr. Dole's biggest problem, however, may not be campaign money. Veteran Republican political consultants say that a far bigger one will be changing a developing public perception -- encouraged by the Democrats -- that he is first and foremost an obstructionist, that his strongest suit is blocking Mr. Clinton's agenda rather than having a positive one of his own. Mindful that the Democrats have dubbed him "Mr. Gridlock," he joked recently on receiving an honorary degree at Colby College in Maine that from now on they'll have to call him "Dr. Gridlock."

But of either label, he says, "I don't think it will stick. We've got to be the party of ideas. We can't be the party of obstruction, although I must say on some occasions that's part of it. We have to be careful what we oppose and how we oppose it. A lot of people out there don't want what [Mr. Clinton] proposes."

He cites his support of the president on a number of issues, including the North American Free Trade Agreement and aid to Russia, and says he won't resort to the filibuster much.

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, though, says the Republican leadership "has come to use the filibuster as never before," and it now is "a regular party tactic" in the Senate. For more than 50 years, Mr. Mitchell says, filibusters averaged less than one a year, but in the last session of Congress he had to file motions to curb them 48 times.

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