Should Dole doff one of his two hats?

April 26, 1996|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Should Bob Dole step down as Senate majority leader now that he has the Republican presidential nomination in hand?

In light of the shoving around Mr. Dole has been enduring in recent days, from Democrats tying legislative tin cans to bills he wants to embarrassing Republican defections on high-profile issues like raising the minimum wage, that question is being asked again by more and more kibitzers.

The same question of keeping the Senate leadership came up when Mr. Dole set out on his quest for the 1996 nomination. Then it was pointed out that the last two Senate majority leaders who reached for the White House, Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1960 and Republican Howard Baker in 1980, both failed in their bids, in part it was said because of the pressures of Senate leadership.

Johnson, assuming his iron-fisted control of the Senate and many if not most of the Democratic senators serving under him would deliver him the convention delegates he needed, miscalculated badly. He competed in no primaries, and by the time he got to the convention in Los Angeles, John F. Kennedy had almost enough delegates to go over the top. He got the rest of the votes he needed there.

Baker decided to stay in the Senate and lead a fight for a strategic arms control treaty. But by the time he broke loose and started campaigning for the Republican nomination, two opponents -- George Bush and the eventual nominee, Ronald Reagan -- had left him in the dust in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Ignoring history

But Mr. Dole last year decided to ignore those two bits of campaign history and held on to the job of Senate majority leader as he embarked on his quest for the 1996 Republican nomination. The decision made his life difficult, because he campaigned diligently even as he ran the Senate.

But he survived the ordeal and clinched the nomination early. One factor was his regular appearance on national television as the Senate leader, being seen practically every night in all the caucus and primary states.

It was small wonder, therefore, that he decided once he had the nomination in hand to keep on doing what had worked for him. The prospect of going head-to-head with a sitting president as the Senate leader during a period of relative political quiet -- five months of it leading up to the national party conventions in August -- looked to be a good bet.

Retaining the Senate leadership also looked good in light of the financial plight of the Dole campaign. In winning the nomination in a "front-loaded" process that had most of the primaries and caucuses jammed into a six-week period, Mr. Dole had front-loaded his campaign spending as well. The gamble paid off but left his treasury almost depleted.

A dent in his image

What better place to campaign without money than the floor of the U.S. Senate? That judgment, however, has been shaken by some deft political and parliamentary business by the White House and the Democratic leadership in the Senate.

Under the direction of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, the Democrats have managed to put a dent in Mr. Dole's image as a legislative master and, as Mr. Dole likes to say to contrast himself with champion schmoozer Bill Clinton, as "a doer, not a talker."

First Mr. Daschle obliged Mr. Dole to put aside a favored immigration bill because a Democratic amendment calling for a minimum wage increase was attached. Then, after being blasted as heartless toward the poor, 20 House Republicans caved in and persuaded Mr. Dole to give signs of doing likewise. Suddenly, being Senate majority leader wasn't all that great.

But Mr. Dole appears to have little choice now. He does need the spotlighted forum, and besides, if he were to step down, his likely successor would be Sen. Trent Lott, an old Newt Gingrich ally. Would Mr. Dole sleep better on the campaign trail knowing Messrs. Lott and Gingrich were in charge of the congressional store?

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

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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