Dole begins to hear footsteps Front-runner is now one of many seeking the GOP nomination

Campaign 1996

February 29, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this article.

GREER, S.C. -- Trying to look blase after another disappointing primary loss, Sen. Bob Dole is back on the campaign trail in South Carolina. But he's hearing footsteps.

Besides tough opposition from Patrick J. Buchanan, Mr. Dole will now also confront a revitalized Steve Forbes in Saturday's primary here. Until the Forbes victory in Arizona Tuesday, "I had it narrowed down to one" major challenger, Mr. Dole noted in a brief interview at the Capitol yesterday before leaving Washington.

On election night, the Senate majority leader was nowhere to be seen, and he ducked the morning-after network TV shows. He continues to shrug off questions about his failure to put together a string of primary victories, conceding only that it will take longer to lock up the nomination.

But before a rally of 300 supporters the other evening in Charleston harbor aboard a World War II aircraft carrier, now a museum -- hours after exit polls showed him headed for defeat in Arizona -- Mr. Dole's frustration showed through.

"Sometimes you're tested, and tested and tested," he said emphatically. "Like somebody up there is testing you. But you don't give up, you don't give up, you don't give up."

D8 Then, he added, "There's always something out there,

maybe, in the way."

Mr. Forbes is the latest obstacle. The multimillionaire, who had all but abandoned the state, began pumping ad dollars into South Carolina yesterday, much of it attacking Mr. Dole. Mr. Buchanan and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who is trailing here, also have anti-Dole spots on the air.

For Mr. Dole, the Forbes challenge is nettlesome. Not only does the wealthy publisher's revival make it harder for Mr. Dole to get Mr. Buchanan into a one-on-one fight, but the publisher can spend unlimited amounts of his own money, raising the prospect of a protracted nomination struggle.

After a campaign shake-up last weekend, Mr. Dole is in an uneasy transition between his former status as the Republican front-runner and his current role as one of several men scrapping for the nomination.

For only the third time this year, he has agreed to take part in a multicandidate forum, today in South Carolina. His defeat in Arizona was blamed in part on his skipping a debate there last week.

"I don't think it'll make any difference," he said of the debate before a business group in Columbia, the state capital. But a top Dole adviser, J. Warren Tompkins, acknowledged that it would be "real important, if somebody makes a mistake," which is why front-runners seldom like to debate.

Mr. Dole has to "make the case, close the sale. He's got to just tell everybody what he's about and what he's going to do," says Mr. Tompkins, one of the top Republican strategists in the South.

But in a state that his campaign calls a must-win, Mr. Dole wasn't saying much of anything yesterday. He appeared to be pursuing an exceedingly cautious path, sitting on the 10- to 15-percentage point lead he holds over Mr. Buchanan in the most recent polls here.

Mr. Dole tried to appear upbeat at his one public event yesterday, at a BMW plant near Greer, S.C., that was intended to contrast his free-trade views with Mr. Buchanan's protectionist ideas.

At the gleaming new factory, which turns out $29,000 Z-3 roadsters, the convertible featured in the latest James Bond movie, he spoke barely six sentences, about the importance of ** trade. Then he stood by as his surrogates -- Gov. David Beasley, former Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia -- did most of the talking.

When a reporter sought Mr. Dole's reaction to the latest insult flung his way by Mr. Buchanan, who called him "Beltway Bob, the bellhop of the Business Roundtable," the response was mild.

"I'll be darned," Mr. Dole said, lightly. He repeated the answer for those who had not heard it the first time, then bit his tongue.

Bob Strobel, a Dole supporter from West Ashley, S.C., thinks the senator "will do better once he gets his message out there about what he really believes in."

"It's like he hasn't tried," adds the retired Air Force officer. "He's // got an uphill battle now."

Mr. Dole's themes center on his experience in government, his World War II service and a shifting basket of ideas that, in this state, includes balancing the budget, getting tough on crime, simplifying the tax system, cutting the Internal Revenue Service, appointing conservative federal judges, putting welfare recipients to work and shifting power to states.

His supporters, who include most of the Republican establishment here, have found their own way to boil down the Dole message. "It's about jobs," says Mr. Campbell, the former governor.

Despite weeks on the stump, Mr. Dole has yet to produce a concise speech that lays out his "vision." He has begun to concede the importance of doing so.

"They ask the question: 'Bob, why are you running for president? What is your vision for America?' and these are all very good questions, and you ought to know the answers," he said at the Charleston rally.

"I know that America is headed in the wrong direction. I know we're not taking care of our children. I know there's too much crime, too much drugs, and there are too many young people graduating from high school who can't find California on the map."

The 93-year-old patriarch of Southern politics, Sen. Strom Thurmond, who followed Mr. Dole to the microphone, summed it up somewhat differently.

"He got to the top every time," Mr. Thurmond, the oldest man to serve in Congress, said of the Senate leader. "Why? Because he deserves it."

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