Shakeup in the Dole campaign, but you can't fire the candidate

September 09, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It is hardly surprising that the Bob Dole campaign would throw a couple of media consultants over the side. When things are going as badly as they are for Mr. Dole, somebody has to take the rap. And it can't be the candidate.

But the staff shakeup at this particular time contributes to a picture of the Republican campaign in disarray and panic. That, in turn, can hasten the process of disintegration.

There are several precedents for the situation in which Senator Dole finds himself, none of them encouraging.

In 1964 the nomination of Barry Goldwater at San Francisco left the party angrily divided, and some leading Republican moderates left the convention refusing to endorse their nominee for the White House. But if Mr. Goldwater had any chance to rally, it was lost when opinion polls showed him facing a landslide defeat at the hands of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Although Mr. Goldwater was a popular figure with die-hard conservatives and even well liked by many moderates, nobody wanted to go down in flames with him in the general election. Republican candidates increasingly went off on their own campaigns and ignored the national ticket. The first rule is always to survive.

''Chicken folks''

PTC The same kind of thing happened to Walter F. Mondale in 1984. He was seen as such a hopeless case against President Ronald Reagan that many of his party colleagues walked away. When he came to Georgia, for example, his campaign chairman there, then Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, absented himself, pleading a previous commitment to meet with ''some chicken folks.''

The message obviously is that being on the losing side of a bandwagon psychology makes it far more likely that the bandwagon will roll over you, as it did over Messrs. Goldwater and Mondale.

In Senator Dole's case, moreover, there is already sound reason to fear such a trend. Recent surveys find that three-fourths of the voters, whatever their own preferences, believe that President Clinton will defeat Mr. Dole. It would be foolish not to expect that to influence others in the electorate, either to go with the winner or, in some cases, simply to sit out the election entirely.

Passive Republicans

Defections among Republicans are already clear. The most recent CNN-Gallup Poll found, for instance, that 87 percent of self-described Democrats plan to vote for President Clinton but only 69 percent of Republicans are planning to vote for Senator Dole. Those figures could spell disaster for the Republicans.

The threat to Mr. Dole is even more apparent in the fact that so few voters seem to be undecided. Recent polls are finding only 6 to 7 percent undecided, about the same number as those supporting Reform Party candidate Ross Perot. The inference must be that most voters already have looked at Mr. Dole and found him wanting as an alternative to the president.

The decision to deep-six Don Sipple and Mike Murphy isn't likely to make a dramatic difference. The implied message is that they are responsible for Senator Dole's continuing weakness and that now new consultants will find an approach that will save the day after all. But the poll figures are essentially what they were a month ago, suggesting that it is the tax-reduction message itself, not the techniques of the handlers, that voters won't buy.

It would be rash to suggest that Senator Dole is a hopeless case. With eight weeks and three debates left in the campaign, there is still time and opportunity for the president to commit some significant gaffe or for Mr. Dole to find a formula that will rally support. Bob Dole is not as frighteningly extreme as Barry Goldwater seemed to be in 1964. And Bill Clinton is not as unassailable an incumbent as Ronald Reagan was in 1984.

But another shakeup in the staff -- the second this year -- is unsettling for other Republicans who think it is Mr. Dole, not his advisers, who is falling short.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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