SAN DIEGO -- Tonight Bob Dole will get the chance to tell millions of Americans who he is, how he thinks and what he wants for the country. He's fretting over every word.
Months of work on his nearly one-hour speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination ended with Dole crashing on deadline. The original speech writer left town Tuesday night after four Dole aides were brought in to rewrite the ending.
The last-minute reworking is troubling to some in the Dole camp, but is not unexpected. The stakes for this speech are higher than any other in his life.
"This is like a show opening on Broadway," said Ken Khachigian, a speech-writer for former President Ronald Reagan who heads the Dole campaign in California.
"For six or seven months, he's been honing, sharpening and shaping his message. Now, this is his chance to speak directly to millions of people who know little about him in an unfiltered way for 48 minutes. It creates the framework for the whole campaign."
If the speech works, it will present Dole as he wants to be seen -- as a straightforward son of the Midwest, who believes in old-fashioned American values of hard work, family and sacrifice that can lead to security, and even prosperity, with equal opportunity for all.
His own story will be offered as testimony: A determined young man, severely wounded in World War II, comes home to a small town that helps to finance his physical rehabilitation and set him on the path to the nation's highest office.
Calling himself "a better man, for a better America," Dole will also offer his vision for a country where families don't have to struggle so hard to get by, older Americans don't have to worry so much about safety and security, and hand-outs will be replaced by helping hands.
For Dole to try to sell himself in what may be a make-or-break speech is a particular challenge.
Speech-making is not his strong point. He speaks in a short-hand style, accompanied by lots of body language and facial gestures.
Most of his famous humor is based on timing, and lots of insider knowledge. It's of the "you-had-to-be-there" variety.
Unlike Reagan or President Clinton, Dole is not a man given to lilting words and phrases. Most written for him sound unnatural coming out of his mouth.
Novelist Mark Helprin had been credited with achieving just the right tone of plain-spoken eloquence in the remarks he wrote for Dole announcing in May his decision to resign from the Senate to campaign full time.
Helprin had been working ever since then on the acceptance speech, but as the big night approached, Dole found the draft too long and in need of editing.
The addition of Jack Kemp to the ticket also encouraged Dole to put greater emphasis on his economic plan with its promise of tax cuts for all Americans. Kemp's message of inclusion and outreach will color the final product.
By yesterday some long-time Dole aides had been brought into the process, including his former Senate speech writer Kerry Tymchuk. As the other writers came in, primarily to rewrite the final four paragraphs, Helprin left. "His job was done," said John Buckley, Dole's communications director.
Dole has spent nearly every afternoon since he arrived in San Diego simultaneously practicing his speech and working on his tan.
On Monday, he slipped out to a private home in nearby La Jolla, where the TelePrompTer was mounted on an oceanfront deck. He spent Tuesday and yesterday on the balcony of his 33rd-floor hotel home.
Asked yesterday for a progress report, he said, "Getting better, getting better."
Pub Date: 8/15/96