Nostalgia prevails on final lap Candidate revives old style, tone

Bittersweet energy, wit mark end of road

The Dole campaign

Campaign 1996

November 04, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- In Omaha, Bob Dole performed an imitation of Bill Clinton trying to smoke marijuana. Later, in Sioux Falls, he was making faces and trotting out phrases like "hokey-hokey."

By the time the 73-year-old Republican nominee landed in Las Vegas, the 10th appearance in 10 states since he had last had a chance to shower and shave, Dole was clearly worn and sleep-deprived. (Although one might say he looked better than Wayne Newton, the cosmetically altered Vegas showman who stood near his side.)

But it was clear that Bob Dole would fight this presidential contest to the end, trying every gambit, drawing on the last reserves of his strength, will and political gifts to defy the long odds and win if he possibly could.

Today, the last full day of the campaign, as Dole asks Americans to vote for him for likely the last time in a political career that began in 1951, friends and advisers say he simply refuses to quit. That's the way Dole has always been -- a man who overcame grievous injuries in World War II, pressured colleagues to bend to his will as Senate majority leader and endured the pain of holding his withered arm in place hour after hour after hour.

"It's typical of Dole to give it everything he's got, and never, ever, ever give up," said Sheila Burke, his longtime Senate aide, who is traveling with him on his 96-hour, barnstorming blitz.

The uphill race against President Clinton forced upon Dole a number of restraints, modifications and poses as tactical maneuvers to win votes. But on the eve of what is probably the grand finale of his public career, Dole has returned to his fundamental self.

He's hard-nosed, hard-edged, stubborn, bitter and unquestionably tough. He's also sloppily sentimental, a little goofy, and so plainly honest that he tends to reveal whatever he's thinking, in self-deprecating one-liners.

"I recognize this Bob Dole," Howard H. Baker Jr., the Tennessean who was Dole's predecessor as Senate Republican leader, said a few days ago, as Dole was linking his low poll ratings to the Democrats, the "liberal" media and, ultimately, the voters for not paying attention.

"I barely recognized the Bob Dole who started this campaign," Baker said. "I think he is a better candidate now than he was a week ago. There is an energy there, there is a wit. It is not mean, but it is tough. And that is Bob Dole."

Try as he might with TelePrompTers, Dole has also reverted to his natural tongue -- an inside-Washington shorthand that is almost impossible for the uninitiated to decipher. But he's speaking again to reporters -- as he had daily in the Senate before his campaign muzzled him. He has ambled back to the press section of his campaign plane more times in the past three days than in the past three months.

"I just keep looking at the media, and it makes me feel so good," Dole joked with bedraggled reporters on the way out of Indianapolis at mid-day Saturday.

After more than 40 hours together on the road, nearly everyone on the plane was copying the famous Dole growl: Arrrrrgh!

Dole doesn't bother to stop and reflect, he said, that this campaign sprint could be the last time he hits the hustings on his own behalf. "Haven't thought about that," he said early yesterday. "Thinking good thoughts."

Even if he were elected president, there has always been doubt that Dole would seek a second term in four years, at age 77.

In any case, for Dole, the final campaign outing of 1996 has been a trip down memory lane -- a bittersweet bridge to his own past.

At stop after stop, he likens this round-the-clock battle engagement to fighting the Nazis in Italy (though at least once he said "Germany"). In Michigan, Dole turned misty-eyed with recollections of former Sen. Phil Hart, a Democrat, but a "decent man," who befriended him in the hospital and gave him tickets to Detroit Tigers games.

Dole was joined for much of Friday by two former Republican presidents, Gerald R. Ford and George Bush, leading players in Dole's political life whom he held up as role models for children and future presidents. But the picture of the three grand old men of the grand old party -- at age 72, Bush is the youngest -- played into the Democratic theme that Clinton, a 50-year-old baby boomer, is more chronologically correct for the new millennium.

Dole's tone during this final campaign blitz is also reminiscent of the slashing rhetoric that first brought him to the attention of many Americans in 1976. Then, as Ford's vice presidential running mate, he caustically referred during a debate to the wars fought by Americans in this century as "Democrat wars."

In recent days, Dole has allowed himself to display the waspish tone his advisers have tried to keep bottled. He often describes what he imagines as a typical day at work for Craig Livingstone, the one-time bar bouncer hired as Clinton's White House security chief who collected hundreds of FBI files on Republicans.

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