TOPEKA, Kan. -- With a calculated appeal to his party's conservative wing, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole formally began his presidential campaign yesterday with a call to shift power to the states.
The 71-year-old Republican, oldest major contender ever to seek the presidency, is betting that voters will be looking for a seasoned hand to take the nation into the 21st century.
"It is critical to have a president who knows what made America great and what has been sacrificed to keep us free, and who would do all in his power to lead America back to her place in the sun," Mr. Dole said in the Kansas capital.
"My friends, I have the experience. I have been tested and tested and tested in many ways. I am not afraid to lead, and I know the way," added the senator, almost certainly the last member of the World War II generation to make a run for the White House.
Mr. Dole, making his fourth try for national office, appeared surprisingly nervous at the outset. When he came to the central line in his speech -- in which he formally declared himself a candidate -- he flubbed the word "experience," a mistake magnified by the dozens of cameras and microphones beaming his words to a national audience.
The meticulously planned announcement ceremony was forced indoors by chilly, damp weather, wiping out a scheduled fireworks display and flyover by World War II-vintage fighters. But two high school bands and several thousand cheering fellow Kansans gave Mr. Dole a rousing send-off nonetheless.
The veteran senator, regarded as Washington's pre-eminent legislative deal-maker, is running on a states-rights theme this time.
Emphasizing the 10th amendment of the Constitution, which gives the states all powers not specifically delegated to Washington, he said that his mandate would be to "rein in" a federal government grown "too remote" and "too isolated" from the people.
But Mr. Dole, who has spent nearly half his life on Capitol Hill, may have to defend his role in that process. He was instrumental, for instance, in gaining approval of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which imposed costly new requirements on businesses and local governments.
He enters the race for the GOP nomination as the clear favorite -- a first for him. The latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll gives Mr. Dole a 46-13 percentage point lead over his nearest challenger, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. Those polls reflect Mr. Dole's status as the leader of the Republican establishment, his strongest asset in the nomination race.
To try to cut into his rivals' support on his right flank, he is reaching out to the forces that brought the Republicans to power in Congress last fall. Yesterday, he offered conservatives a red-meat agenda of lower taxes, tough action against criminals, welfare reform and deep cuts in the federal bureaucracy.
He called for an end to the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities as well as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He also repeated his proposal to shut down the Cabinet departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, Commerce and Energy.
Though regarded for many years as a moderate on civil rights and fiscal matters, he termed affirmative action "another federal policy out of control" and said that federal taxes could be cut and the federal budget balanced at the same time.
More important than his rhetoric on taxes, however, will be the Senate's performance under Mr. Dole's leadership as it tries to write a plan for eliminating the federal budget deficit by 2002.
References to God
Mr. Dole's strategists want him to appeal to conservatives, and yesterday's speech appeared designed to reach that goal. Although he made no mention of the social issues dear to conservative activists -- abortion, gun control and school prayer -- he referred repeatedly to God, a nod to the growing role of religious conservatives in Republican politics.
If elected, Mr. Dole would be 73 upon inauguration, nearly four years older than was Ronald Reagan when he became the nation's oldest president, in 1981.
His party's unsuccessful nominee for vice president in 1976, Mr. Dole tried to win the GOP nomination in 1980 and 1988. He underwent surgery for prostate cancer in the early 1990s and considered retiring.
But with a relatively weak field of GOP contenders and a politically vulnerable president, he decided to take one last shot, both for himself and for the generation that came of age during World War II.
He delivered his remarks yesterday a few blocks from the Capitol where he began his political career as a state legislator in 1951, when Bill Clinton was 4 years old.
Mr. Dole lashed out at the president, describing him as "a clever apologist for the status quo."
Dole strategists believe their man would have an advantage over Mr. Clinton if foreign policy becomes a factor in the '96 campaign. Mr. Dole pressed that point in his speech, attacking the Clinton policy with one of his biggest applause lines.
War record stressed
"When we take our revolution to the White House in 1996, we will vow that American policies will be determined by us, not by the United Nations," he said.
Mr. Dole is stressing his war record -- his announcement this week coincides with the 50th anniversary of his wounding in World War II -- in contrast to Mr. Clinton and several Republican hopefuls, including Mr. Gramm, who avoided military service during the Vietnam War era.
Mr. Dole hopes to lock up the nomination by taking the first two contests in February -- the caucuses in Iowa, where he won in 1988, and the New Hampshire primary, where his loss to George Bush eight days later seemingly killed his presidential dreams.
He flew from Kansas to New Hampshire, where he gave essentially the same speech to an audience of several hundred in Exeter, a community with a disputed claim to be the birthplace of the Republican Party.