Mistiming kept Dole off rhythm of campaign Review: Looking back on 1996, Bob Dole's aides point to moves not made at the right time because of staff inexperience and the candidate's nature.

Election 1996

November 06, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Bob Dole tapped his forehead with his left index finger to identify the mastermind of his 96-hour "campaignathon" -- and of all the other imaginative tactics that marked his race for the White House.

But, as Dole acknowledged aboard his campaign plane in the wee hours Saturday, those tactics earned him only slight and fleeting gains in opinion polls. They were no substitute for a well-crafted strategy that insiders say should have been unfolding by April, when the campaign instead went silent for weeks.

"We needed to jolt the campaign; it was very difficult for us to do that," Scott Reed, his campaign manager, said last weekend.

Those in the Dole organization say it was beset by myriad problems, including an indecisive candidate who insisted on making all the decisions and was an uninspiring campaigner, an inexperienced staff that fumbled the shift from primaries to the general election campaign, and a failure to settle on, and plainly articulate, one clear reason why Dole was a better choice for president than Clinton.

These flaws combined to sabotage the effort back in the spring, when Clinton, the Democrats and labor unions were pummeling Dole with negative ads. Dole failed to fire back because his campaign funds were depleted by a costly series of primaries that Clinton didn't have to fight.

"It was sort of like the starship Enterprise with its shields down when the photon guns are fired," said Frank Donatelli, who was a political director in the Reagan White House and helped the Dole campaign. "You can look back now at that period as when the dynamic of the campaign was set."

It was the Dole campaign's miscalculation to assume that it would have time to wage a television war with Clinton once the Republican convention in August had ended and $72 million in public money became available.

"That was a terrible error," said Jim Ciccone, a campaign official. "We should not have let the lack of money prevent us from positioning on issues, articulating a vision and themes.

"There's a lot you can do without money, like saying provocative things," he added. "We should have begun to make Clinton defend in areas where he is vulnerable instead of waiting until October to do it."

For two or three months leading up to the Republican convention in August, advisers were sending draft speeches to Dole, on issues such as trade and the environment, that would at least have earned him free press coverage.

Dole never gave those speeches. Before he quit the Senate in June, the majority leader was busy trying to push his legislative agenda past a noisy Democratic minority that was determined to block anything he could turn to his political advantage.

Democrats and some Dole supporters assumed that Dole was hoping to burnish his legislative record for the campaign. But there was no such plan, Reed said.

"We never had a legislative strategy; we knew that wasn't a winner," Reed said.

The organization wasn't doing even the basic spadework of a national campaign -- building a state-by-state network and assembling supporters to work at the grass roots.

Dole himself originated the idea to depart from the Senate, a move that produced positive press coverage and good will, as well as his most memorable speech of the year. The candidate even briefly enjoyed a rise in the polls.

But Dole still had little to say on the campaign trail. For a while, he couldn't decide on the economic plan that was to be the

centerpiece of his message. Aides were pushing tax cuts. But Dole had a reputation as a budget-deficit hawk who mocked "supply-siders" and their argument that revenue unleashed by tax cuts would go into the economy and shrink the deficit over time.

Nor was the economy cooperative. With the nation at peace and the public generally satisfied with the economy, many voters said they felt the country was on the right track under Clinton.

By the time Dole unveiled his 15 percent tax cut, it was a week before the Republican National Convention. At that late date, Dole advisers say, the proposal was widely perceived as a vote-grabbing gimmick, and Democrats ridiculed it as such. Dole's depiction of the tax cut as a panacea for an economy few regarded as ailing never proved persuasive.

"They never sold it right," said Rep. John R. Kasich, a Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee and appeared with Dole last week. "It's like this empty political promise. Not only am I gonna give you a 15 percent tax cut, but there's going to be a chicken in every pot."

Dole also had trouble figuring out how to highlight Clinton's potential weakness on ethics issues. In the spring, the Republican nominee spoke vaguely about "trust," suggesting at one point that people would feel better entrusting their children to Dole's care than to Clinton's. But most in the Dole camp had argued strenuously that the candidate himself -- already saddled with a reputation for nastiness -- should not go on the attack because critics would say he was being mean.

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