Exuberant Dole primed for political party of his life Twice unsuccessful, candidate stands ready to claim GOP's top prize

Republican Convention

Campaign 1996

August 12, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- Forget the gloomy polls. Disregard the platform fights. Bob Dole arrived yesterday as guest of honor at a party he's been waiting for -- for at least 20 years. And he's having the time of his life.

Standing on the bow of the tour boat that carried him across the San Diego Harbor accompanied by a flotilla of well-wishers on yachts, sailboats and ferries, Dole was in such a lighthearted mood that he pretended he was going to dive in for a swim. His wife, Elizabeth, had to stop the soon-to-be presidential nominee from climbing on a ledge to get an even better view of the waterborne tribute.

"This is a very exciting day," Dole told the several thousand supporters who met his boat at Embarcadero park near the site of the Republican National Convention.

He described how he had taken new running mate Jack Kemp and his wife, Joanne, to the basement of the modest, red-brick home where he grew up in Russell, Kan. The Dole family was so poor they had to rent out the upper floors of the house during the Depression so they could pay the mortgage.

Dole said he showed Kemp the sight so he would understand what it means for Dole to be where he is today. Even if he doesn't win the election in November, even if it's all downhill from here, Dole -- twice before the political bridesmaid -- is about to be awarded his party's top prize.

"It's a long way from that basement apartment, where six of us lived for a long time, to San Diego," Dole said he told Kemp before visiting his parents' graves yesterday morning.

Perhaps it was Dole's two previous bids for the nomination -- in 1980 and 1988 -- and his unsuccessful race in the second spot on the ticket headed by President Gerald Ford, that have given Dole a sense of proportion.

He may still be 20 percentage points behind President Clinton. He may have lost a battle on abortion language in the platform. But that doesn't seem to have dimmed this moment for Dole at all.

"He's extremely upbeat and proud," Scott Reed, Dole's campaign manager, said yesterday. "I mean he's coming to get the nomination. He's been working for this for years. We made it, and we're feeling stronger than ever."

In fact, Dole has been so pumped up he's hardly been able to sit still for the past few days. While supposedly relaxing at the family home in Russell on Friday and Saturday, Dole would pop out the front door every hour or so to talk to reporters or onlookers who happened to be around.

Saturday night he took the Kemps to Meridy's, Russell's best steak house, and spent nearly three hours strolling around, shaking hands and kibitzing with neighbors, friends and former constituents.

"I had the ladies' cut," he said, offering an unsolicited report on the slab of beef he ordered. Dole made a face to indicate even that size steak was too large for him. But at the same time he seemed to be bragging about what his tiny hometown could produce.

After his arrival in San Diego, Dole couldn't stay in his hotel room. He was in and out of the coffee shop, doing impromptu interviews, meeting briefly with Kemp, and going out about the town, which was teaming with Republican parties.

Dole also seems delighted so far with Kemp, the strange political bedfellow he asked to join his ticket.

Apart from the good reviews the choice is getting, Dole seems to be simply enjoying the company of the former congressman and housing secretary who he calls "the quarterback" -- a reference to Kemp's earlier career as a professional athlete.

Dole, a wounded combat veteran, was visibly moved when Kemp twice told crowds that when President Dole gives his State of the Union address he won't have to point to heroes in the balcony because "there will be a hero on the podium."

Dole also nodded appreciatively at the way Kemp keeps good-natured but firm control of a crowd. "No booing," Kemp said at one point yesterday -- even though the audience was booing Democrats.

The two men are former rivals for the GOP nomination who have never been close and who have recently been so estranged that Kemp thought he had no chance for the second spot.

"I didn't ask for the job of Bob Dole's running mate," he said. "I didn't pursue it. I didn't expect it."

But for Kemp, too, this GOP ticket is a new, and perhaps, last chance at realizing old dreams. He said he accepted the invitation "faster than the Democrats raise taxes."

It may now be an advantage that the two running mates are such opposites in personal style. Kemp's ebullience seemed to infect Dole yesterday as if Kemp were translating the quieter man's inner excitement.

"It's definitely good politics," a longtime Republican campaign worker said of the combination. "Just don't ask me to be their chief of staff."

As the huge pinkish replica of the White House rose behind them on the Embarcadero stage, Dole was determined not to look for trouble ahead but to savor the moment.

"It's nice to see him relaxed and comfortable in this role" of nominee, said Sheila Burke, a 17-year Dole veteran who served as his chief of staff in the Senate. "It's a realization of a lot of our dreams."

Pub Date: 8/12/96

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