Classic Dole toughness, new style Nominee's speech confident, defensive and highly partisan

Campaign 1996

Republican Convention

August 16, 1996|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- Delivering what had been billed as "the speech of his life" to cheering Republican delegates, Bob Dole combined his characteristic toughness with rhetorical flourishes that sounded totally new coming from him.

The 73-year-old Republican nominee for president was, by turns, defensive and ebulliently self-confident, highly partisan and grandly philosophical.

The evidence of the public opinion polls ran through the message Dole delivered to the convention and, more to the point, to the largest television audience he has ever reached.

At the outset, he confronted the "negatives" the surveys have uncovered during his months on the national stage -- that many )) voters believe he is too old for the presidency, that some consider him too combative and partisan, and that others see him as a legislative insider too willing to compromise.

To the contrary, he tried to depict each as an advantage.

Describing the "gracious compensations of age," he said, "Age has its advantages. Let me be a bridge to an America that only the unknowing call myth. Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquillity, faith and confidence in action. To those who say it was never so, that America has not been better, I say you're wrong, and I know because I was there. I have seen it. I remember."

A moment later, he added, "To those who believe that I am too combative, I say if I'm combative, it is for love of country. It is to uphold a standard that I was born and bred to defend. And to those who believe that I live and breathe compromise, I say that in politics, honorable compromise is no sin, it is what protects us from absolutism and intolerance."

The findings of the polls also were apparent in the emphasis he gave to issues that regularly lead the list of American concerns at the moment -- education and crime.

And he skirted issues on which there are sharp divisions within the electorate.

His only mention of abortion came when he listed the ills that he suggested dominate American life today -- "crime, drugs, illegitimacy, abortion, the abdication of duty and the abandonment of children."

There was no reference to the continuing and bitter divisions within his party over abortion rights.

And he made only tangential and oblique references to two other issues -- affirmative action and immigration -- which polls show divide Americans sharply.

On affirmative action, he said only, "The Constitution of the United States mandates equal protection under the law. This is not code language for racism, it is plain speaking against it. And the guiding light of my administration will be that in this country we have no rank order by birth, no claim to favoritism by race, no expectation of judgment other than it be evenhanded. We cannot guarantee the outcome, but we shall guarantee the opportunity."

On immigration, he pointedly set himself apart from party conservatives who would deny benefits even to legal immigrants.

"The right and obligation of a sovereign nation to control its own borders is beyond debate," said Dole. "We should not have a single illegal immigrant. But the question of immigration is broader than that, and let me be specific. A family from Mexico who arrived this morning legally has as much right to the American dream as the direct descendants of the Founding Fathers.

"The Republican Party is broad and inclusive. It represents many streams of opinion and many points of view. But if there is anyone who has mistakenly attached himself to the party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion, then let me remind you:

"Tonight this hall belongs to the party of Lincoln, and the exits, which are clearly marked, are for you to walk out of as I stand here and hold this ground without compromise."

Perhaps the most telling evidence that Dole was trying to touch the most sensitive nerves came in the emphasis he put on values.

It reflected the feeling among voters that American society has been corrupted by the adoption of false values rather than traditional ones.

Dole was under extraordinary pressure to deliver a speech that would persuade viewers that he has some vision of the kind of America he would like to create if given four years in the White House -- pressure heightened by his long career as a legislative engineer and his recent history as a candidate incapable of evoking zeal from his followers.

His answer, in essence, was that he has seen that better America and can lead the country back to it if he is elected.

Although he spelled out the tax reduction plan that is the heart of his campaign agenda, Dole argued that the election was about much more than federal spending and specifically about trust in new leadership.

The Republican nominee also spoke in the context of fresh opinion polls showing that the "bounce" he had gained from the selection of Jack Kemp as his running mate had been minimal and apparently transitory.

In terms of the campaign against President Clinton, the first political imperative was to change the nature of the story line -- from Dole's being seen as a hopeless case to being seen as an underdog closing the gap.

Whether the Republican nominee achieved that purpose won't be known until the next round of opinion polls and probably not until after the Democratic convention in Chicago.

But it could be said that, at the least, Bob Dole delivered "the speech of his life."

Pub Date: 8/16/96

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