Dole also runs against calendar Nearing 73, candidate gives more regard to health, appearance

June 30, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- There was a skip to his step in Manhattan as Bob Dole took the stage at a Republican fund-raiser last week. The next night, in Cleveland, he progressed to a polka at a Slovenian festival, even donning an ethnic hat in the grand tradition of presidential campaigns.

Dole's skin had the golden glow of a weekend in the sun. And his eyes were bright, clear signals that he had gotten a good night's sleep.

"As long as he looks this good, age isn't going to be an issue in the race," said Leon Weil, a New York investment banker and Dole supporter who was visibly impressed by the candidate's appearance.

That is Dole's strategy. Approaching his 73rd birthday, the former senator, attempting to become the oldest man ever to launch a presidency, is tanned, rested and ready -- with a purpose.

"I think [age] will fade as an issue because I think people are going to see me around, see I'm very active, see I am healthy," Dole said in an interview aboard his campaign plane on the way home from Cleveland. "They used to say if Bob Dole catches a cold, it's all over. Well, I've had a flu shot."

Dole's appearance matters. He needs to look fit as he tries to unseat a 49-year-old incumbent.

According to a Wall Street Journal poll published Friday, one in three voters says Dole is too old to serve effectively as president. Only one in five expressed similar concerns about Ronald Reagan when he sought a second term as president at 73. And President Clinton's overall lead remains a formidable 17 percent.

Even as the race tightens, age will remain at least a subtext of the contest. It is usually the first criticism mentioned by voters who don't plan to support Dole.

"I wouldn't vote for someone my own age," said Keith Rogal, a 72-year-old Democrat, who was lunching at the Stage Delicatessen in New York when Dole dropped by last week.

Thus, the presumed Republican nominee takes great care to put his best face forward -- with a low-fat diet, exercise on a treadmill, eight or more hours sleep most nights and tanning breaks whenever he can sneak away.

He occasionally shows off his endurance with a marathon campaign day of many stops. But then he takes the weekend off:

"I remember Jimmy Carter used to head for home every Friday. He'd go back to Plains. I wondered at the time: 'Why isn't the guy working seven days a week?'

"It occurred to me later: because he's smart. He knows you've got to get a little rest, you've got to reflect. You've got to have a chance to catch up a little bit."

Anxious Dole supporters, fretting over Clinton's lead, might wish for a more vigorous campaign schedule. But Dole says, "No."

"It is an endurance contest in a sense," he said, "[but] there's only so much you can do properly."

"I've got a lot of stamina; a lot of energy," he said. "I like to see as many people as possible." But he also likes to be in bed by 10: 30 p.m.

On Monday night in New York, "I got home at 9: 30, stayed up and practiced my Teleprompter for a half-hour" for a foreign policy speech Tuesday in Philadelphia, Dole said. "By 10: 15, I was in bed. Got up at 7. Can't beat it."

Seeking to play down the age issue, Dole's friends often volunteer tales of how hard-working and tireless he is. But the candidate says he believes in pacing.

Sundays, in particular, are days of rest. Last Sunday, Dole and his wife, Elizabeth, invited New Mexico Sen. Pete V. Domenici and Domenici's wife, Nancy, over for brunch at their Watergate condo.

Although the polls remain unaffected, the healthy regimen appears to be paying off where it matters most. Dole said the results of a physical exam he had before leaving the Senate earlier this month suggest he's in better shape now than he was a year ago.

His cholesterol level is 154, down from 182 last year, Dole said. Doctors consider any reading under 200 to be good. Clinton's cholesterol reading also dropped this year, but just to 191 from 203.

And, five years after Dole had a cancerous prostate gland removed, a recent test showed there has been no recurrence of cancerous cells.

"After five years, I would say he was cured," said Dr. Michael Naslund, an assistant professor of urology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The Dole campaign is planning to release the details of the candidate's latest physical to mark his birthday July 22, seeking as it did last year to address the issue with the evidence that age seems to have little effect on Dole's health.

"I think that's what it's about: your health, more than your age," Dole said. "I think about my health, I always have. I really haven't been sick much in my life."

Dole spent three years in the hospital as a young man recovering from World War II combat injuries that left his right arm useless and impaired the function of his left hand.

Since then, there have been a few minor ailments, such as a kidney stone in 1981. Not much else. He quit smoking a decade ago and drinks alcohol only occasionally.

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