Dole shakes up his staff, but it's the candidate who must sell the voters

February 28, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- There is nothing unusual about campaigns changing management when things go badly. But the shake-up in the presidential campaign of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole has the smell of desperation about it, coming as it does when the candidate is struggling to regain control of the agenda from Patrick J. Buchanan.

The notion that the flaw in the campaign has been Bill Lacy, the deputy chairman who served as the prime strategist, or that the blame lies with a poll-taker also being replaced, is patent nonsense. In organizational terms, Senator Dole has had all the best of it -- the most money by a ton, the endorsements of almost every Republican office holder from sheriff up the ladder, the most sophisticated on-the-ground operations in the key early tests in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Nonetheless, Mr. Dole fell far short of an impressive victory in the Iowa precinct caucuses and lost to Mr. Buchanan in the New Hampshire primary. And what was crystal clear in both cases is that the failure was that of the candidate himself.

Bob Dole is a legislative leader widely and deservedly respected for his intelligence, wit and skills as an effective politician -- none of which surfaced prominently up to this point in the campaign. Is that Bill Lacy's fault?

Instead, it has been obvious to everyone knowledgeable about big-league politics that Senator Dole is one of those candidates who cannot articulate a message that will convince skeptical voters they need to support him. His impressive resume, his vast experience, his friends in high places -- none count for anything when a candidate cannot make a persuasive case for himself.

This is the critical point missed in the focus on staff shake-ups and the role of advisers and consultants in any presidential campaign. In the end, it is the candidate who makes the sale or fails to do so.

It may be possible, as critics of the system allege, to sell candidates like soap powder at the level of state or congressional campaigns. But when they are running for president, the voters finally get to know enough about them to make judgments -- as Steve Forbes has been discovering as his poll numbers have declined in the last few weeks.

''Extremist'' label backfires

Senator Dole's shake-up supposedly was precipitated by the decision after New Hampshire for him to attack Mr. Buchanan as ''an extremist'' the Republican Party dare not nominate. It is now being said that this approach backfired because Mr. Dole has earned no reward in the opinion polls. But is that because he went after Mr. Buchanan -- or because he didn't couple his attacks with a plausible rationale for his own candidacy?

Whatever the validity of the reasons for the change in command, the decision has reinforced doubts about the Dole campaign. Everyone in politics remembers when he made a similar change in 1988 -- to no avail -- after being defeated by George Bush in New Hampshire in 1988.

Moreover, the Dole campaign has taken some odd turns lately that recall problems he had eight years ago. His decision against debating his rivals in Arizona is particularly puzzling because it suggests he still considers himself an above-the-fray front-runner. In fact he is fighting for his political survival -- just as he was when he boycotted a similar debate in Dallas in 1988.

Rather than debate this time, he chose to fly to Oregon, where the primary is still more than two weeks away and the prize so small it isn't likely to matter much anyway. That brought to mind such moments from 1988 as, for example, when he suddenly rushed into Florida -- but largely to campaign in congressional districts in which he had little or no chance of gaining delegates rather than those in which he had a realistic chance of winning.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with Mr. Dole's campaign that cannot be fixed or forgotten if he regains his footing and begins defeating Mr. Buchanan in primaries. But you have to wonder if he imagines that his problems can be resolved simply by changing a few bodies in his political apparatus.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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