The White House eluded him twice now Dole tries again THE LAST CAMPAIGN

April 10, 1995|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Washington -- There's an easygoing bounce to Bob Dole's step these days, a fresh gleam in his eye.

At a stage in life when most guys have quit working -- he'll turn 72 this summer -- Mr. Dole may finally have the inside track on the toughest job in the world.

He'd be the oldest man ever to become president, if he makes it. His political hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was already retired when he was Mr. Dole's age.

But the Kansas senator isn't letting the age issue, or anything else, stop him from taking what looks like his best shot ever at the White House -- an opportunity that most people, including Mr. Dole, thought was gone for good.

"I think there's a lot of juice left in our generation," he says now.

And he may need every bit of that juice to convince Americans that, after embracing a new generation of leadership in 1992, they should turn again to the older generation to take the country into the 21st century. He'll also have to convince voters weary of career politicians that a consummate Washington deal-maker, an insider's insider who's spent nearly half his life on Capitol Hill, is the right man to head the conservative crusade to transform the government.

As Mr. Dole formally begins his third try for the nomination, he is squeezing every lesson, and every advantage, he can out of a lifetime of experience. For starters, he's playing up his war record in a way he's never done before.

He's timed the opening of his campaign to coincide with the golden anniversary of the defining moment in his life: a near-fatal wounding during World War II. Fifty years ago this week, as a young Army platoon leader in Italy, Mr. Dole had most of his right shoulder blown off during an attack on a German machine-gun nest.

He almost bled to death on the battlefield. A few months later, after he was shipped home to a military medical center in Topeka -- the city where he'll deliver his announcement speech this morning -- he nearly died again, from a series of infections. He would ultimately spend four grueling years in and out of hospitals, and never regain the use of his right arm -- a disability he's done all he can to hide.

He has described himself as "someone who's been tested in a lot of ways, and somebody who gets up every morning and knows that people have difficulties, because I have a little difficulty dressing." He must use a button hook to put on his shirt, and he keeps a pen, or rolled-up piece of paper, in his right fist when he's in public, to prevent his fingers from splaying.

"After 12 or 14 hours, his arm hurts. You'd never know it from him," says former Sen. Warren Rudman, a close friend. "He has this remarkable stamina, but he needs to avoid getting overtired. I wouldn't want to see him doing too many 16- or 18-hour days."

Mr. Dole has never been comfortable talking about his wounding, or the struggle to rebuild his life. But his campaign strategists rate his war record as one of the highest cards to play in the presidential contest.

It conveys a message about his strength of character. It also gives him a political edge over several rivals, including President Clinton and Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, his main Republican competitor at the moment, who avoided military service during Vietnam.

At the same time, Mr. Dole's World War II service is a reminder that he comes from a generation whose experiences are foreign to many Americans. Apparently referring to research done recently for his presidential campaign, Mr. Dole remarked last week that "half the people didn't know what D-Day was."

The senator insists that he's not worried about the age issue. But he was concerned enough to consider offering a pledge to serve only one term as president, an idea he has since rejected.

Presidents and age

"We're electing a president for the year 2000, and 'Dole for the future' is not a compelling campaign argument," says Mike Murphy, who produced TV ads for the 1988 Dole presidential campaign but is advising former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander this time.

Focus-group interviews conducted for the Dole campaign confirm what Ronald Reagan's pollster discovered long ago: that the voters most troubled by a candidate's advancing age are other seniors -- those with firsthand experience with the effects of aging.

Mr. Reagan, the oldest man to serve as president, was 3 1/2 years younger when he was sworn in than Mr. Dole would be on Inauguration Day. Dole aides say voters won't dwell on Mr. Dole's age, barring a serious illness or mental lapse in the heat of the campaign.

Like Mr. Reagan, Mr. Dole projects the vigor and vitality of a much younger man.

"Image is the whole thing," says Tony Fabrizio, a pollster who advised the '88 Dole campaign and may play a similar role this time. "When you put Bob Dole and Phil Gramm next to each other on TV, there is no question Dole looks older, but I don't think he looks 20-some years older."

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