CLEVELAND -- He came armed with a clear message, stuck with it and cheated only a little on his self-imposed "vow of silence" with inquiring reporters. A modest victory, perhaps, but for Bob Dole, this smooth three-day sojourn through Midwest battleground states seemed a sign that his campaign was finally taking on a professional luster.
"I'm very impressed, happy and pleased," said Christina Suma, a 40-year-old Cleveland mother of two who had just heard Dole describe his plan to provide federal scholarships for low- and moderate-income students to attend private or religious schools. think a lot of people are going to pick up on this real quick."
Bill Clinton can charm with his easy, off-the-cuff rapport. Ronald Reagan inspired with a highly refined, stage-managed eloquence. But Dole is not a gifted speaker, and he is certainly no actor.
His rhetorical strengths are a biting wit and an unvarnished honesty that often get him in trouble -- especially when nothing else he says seems to rise to the level of news.
"He says what he really thinks; sometimes it helps, sometimes it hurts," said Robert E. Lighthizer, one of Dole's top advisers.
Trailing Clinton by 20 points or so in the polls, Dole has been buffeted by a series of self-inflicted embarrassments. His campaign is combating this problem in two ways: It is providing reporters with grist for substantive news reports. And it is trying to keep the soon-to-be Republican nominee from stepping on his own message with off-handed misstatements that distract attention.
On this trip, the theme was education; the focus was a voucher program to use tax money to help pay for private and parochial school tuition. The candidate alternately talked up his idea and attacked Clinton for siding with teachers' unions against vouchers.
For two of his three main speeches, Dole read from Teleprompters, and texts were provided to reporters in advance. Those steps, unusual for the Dole campaign, curbed his tendency to ramble and made it easier for reporters to follow what he was saying and to quote from it.
What's more, Dole aides passed out fact sheets on the Dole proposal, his voting record on education, and canned quotes from Republican governors -- all of them would-be vice-presidential running mates -- in support of his tuition voucher plan. And two former U.S. education secretaries -- William J. Bennett and Lamar Alexander -- came along on the trip to elaborate on Dole's remarks.
"There's a clear contrast between these two people who are running for president," said Bennett, who has been a critic of the lackluster Dole effort. "I don't think we've made our case. But I hope people will begin to get the message as the days go on."
Curbing Dole's penchant for sharing with reporters both his witty asides and his anger and frustration is a more delicate matter.
Dole has found it difficult to make the transition from a Senate majority leader, who could get away with saying almost anything, to a presidential nominee, whose every word is potential news.
Some of his aides want to curb reporters' access to the candidate, contending that, by comparison, Clinton faces fewer such demands.
"Clinton isn't confronted with camera crews whenever he leaves his bedroom to go to the kitchen for a cup of coffee," said a Dole aide who insisted on anonymity. "But there's a crew waiting for Dole every morning when he walks across the street from his apartment to go to Cuppa Cuppa."
Others don't want to cut Dole off from the media completely, or to turn him into a robocandidate who spits out "talking points" regardless of what he's asked.
"His honesty is one of his most attractive qualities," said Sheila Burke, a longtime aide.
So Dole is practicing self-discipline. He has allowed reporters within earshot and granted a few interviews on specific topics. But he has replied to few impromptu questions, and none on weighty issues.
When asked by reporters whether he had been warned not to banter with the media, Dole invoked a Reagan ploy.
He cupped his hand to his ear as though he couldn't hear and said, "Huh?"
"I don't want to say something; I would rather talk to those people over there," he said, gesturing to people waving from windows in a building across the street from where he was sunning himself on the roof of a Minneapolis hotel. "They don't ask any questions."
Perhaps one of Dole's most effective strategies is to bring along his wife, Elizabeth, whenever he faces tough questions.
That's what happened when he was interviewed last Monday night by CNN's Larry King, who quizzed him about Dole's verbal fumbles.
Dole seemed about to step again into the furor set off by his suggestion that smoking may not always be addictive.
"Having said that. " he began, whereupon his wife abruptly interjected, "That's it."
Pub Date: 7/20/96