PHILADELPHIA -- One of the continuing puzzles of the Bob Dole campaign is why the Republican nominee for president seems compelled to play to the far right of his party at this stage in the process.
The evidence that he is doing so was there for all to see on their television screens and the front pages of last weekend's newspapers when Mr. Dole attended the conference of the Christian Coalition and was embraced by its founder, television evangelist Pat Robertson.
It is just the kind of thing that is causing the Republican candidate serious defections among moderate Republican and independent voters who are offended by the religious right's obsession with the abortion question and other issues lumped under the heading of ''family values.''
Senator Dole originally intended to bypass the coalition meeting and leave it to Jack Kemp to represent the ticket. But Mr. Robertson began muttering that the senator was not capturing enough of a majority among born-again voters and needed to shore up his position.
In fact, if the opinion polls are accurate, Mr. Dole is not winning enough of a share of any of the voting blocs that he needs to make a serious challenge to President Clinton.
He is supported, for example, by fewer than 70 percent of self-identified Republicans, suggesting a significant potential defection November 5. By contrast, President Clinton is backed by 87 percent of Democrats in the same surveys.
A price with moderates
Senator Dole and his strategists surely understand that he pays a price with those suburban moderates when he is seen so clearly playing up to Mr. Robertson. And George Bush already has demonstrated four years ago that a Republican candidate, even an incumbent president, cannot afford that tradeoff. His losses among suburban voters wiped out his chances of carrying such pivotal states as Pennsylvania (23 electoral votes), Ohio (21) and New Jersey (15).
This is particularly strange when you consider Mr. Dole's own priorities as a senator and Republican leader of the Senate over the years. He was always a legislator far more interested in issues of governance than in the so-called social issues. He opposed abortion rights, to be sure, but it was never an issue he used to define himself in any way until this campaign. And the same could be said of his latter-day concern with sex and violence in the entertainment industry.
At the Republican convention Mr. Dole seemed to get his footing. The campaign would be based largely, he indicated, on his plan for a 15 percent tax cut across the board. But the social conservatives such as Pat Robertson have continued to insist that the campaign should pay equal or more attention to moral questions -- and Senator Dole is still sending signals that he agrees.
Christians for Clinton?
The practical question here is where those voters would go if Mr. Dole doesn't measure up to their expectations in terms of his priorities. Are Christian fundamentalists going to defect to Bill Clinton? Hardly.
By contrast, President Clinton has avoided anything that might appear to be kowtowing to the most loyal constituency in the Democratic Party -- African-American voters. His willingness to sign the welfare-reform bill is the ultimate evidence supporting the thesis that Mr. Clinton knows these voters have nowhere else to turn.
To some degree, Mr. Dole's thrashing around is a predictable product of the fact that he is running so far behind with the campaign entering its final weeks. The hopes the senator had for the tax issue have not been realized; the evidence instead is that most voters don't believe he will ever be able to deliver on the 15 percent.
So the search is on for some other magic bullet. Last week it was the drug issue, next week it may be something else. But Bob Dole isn't going to win the White House relying solely on the most conservative elements of his party.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 9/23/96