Mrs. Dole outduels Senate foe

October 16, 2002|By Jules Witcover

SALISBURY, N.C. -- Everybody in North Carolina knows Elizabeth Dole, the home-grown Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate who ran for president two years ago, served in two GOP Cabinet posts and is married to one of her party's icons.

For all that, however, North Carolina Democrats at first entertained thoughts they might detour her latest aspirations by challenging her as a carpetbagger who had outgrown her roots in becoming a Washington political fixture. It hasn't worked.

Having moved in with her 101-year-old mother in this sleepy town in the rural center of the state, the wife of 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole has made herself at home, to the consternation of supporters of her Democratic foe, former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles.

In television commercials touting her North Carolina roots, Ms. Dole fairly oozes Southern graciousness and charm, layered with a serious demeanor to be expected of one who has walked and worked with the powerful in Washington. Both her North Carolina mother and her Washington husband have appeared in her television ads.

In one used early in the campaign, she drummed home the local angle and her concern for the elderly. "Mother and I talk every day," she said. "She lives with me here in Salisbury. ... Mother's 101, so we talk a lot about doctors and prescription drugs." In another, she mentions major military installations in the state, then says: "That tradition is part of my family. My husband is a disabled vet who's leading the effort to build the World War II memorial."

It's a formidable combination to buck for political neophyte Bowles, the Charlotte businessman whose connection with Bill Clinton seems at best a mixed blessing. So after his divisive primary victory last month over Dan Blue, a prominent black legislative leader, the state Democratic Party sought other Dole vulnerabilities.

It found what it was looking for in a seven-point "Dole Plan" in which she supports "giving younger workers the option of voluntarily putting a small portion of their [Social Security] payroll tax into a government-approved diversified index fund in the stock or bond market."

The state Democrats jumped on the statement in a television ad, saying Ms. Dole wanted to "gamble Social Security money in the stock market."

The Republican committee in Washington that is charged with helping Senate candidates responded with an ad accusing Mr. Bowles of using "Clinton-style attacks." Ms. Dole appeared in one ad, pledging, "I will not cut one single penny from the benefits of anyone on Social Security, and I won't vote to increase payroll taxes."

The state Democratic Party ran another ad charging that "Elizabeth Dole's privatization plans would allow more than a trillion dollars to be taken out of the Social Security trust fund." In a counter Dole ad, she said Mr. Bowles "has distorted my record again," adding: "Mr. Bowles, if you keep having trouble getting my position straight, I suggest you get a copy of the Dole Plan. It's free."

The campaign has thus become increasingly negative as Mr. Bowles has struggled to gain a foothold against this political celebrity who defends herself in soothing tones and with expressions of dismay at the tactics used against her.

In an interview here, Ms. Dole recalled that on the night of the Republican primary, she proposed to Mr. Bowles "that each of us put $2 million into a fund and we would have statewide discussions of the issues, and we would have no ads ... and really try to change the tone of politics in North Carolina."

Mr. Bowles declined, enabling her to say she tried to head off the attack ads that now dominate the campaign.

Mr. Bowles also has been hindered by cool feelings carrying over from his primary against Mr. Blue. Previous Democratic senatorial nominees have fared well from high turnouts in off-year elections, so party unity is critical to Mr. Bowles' hopes. But Ms. Dole's popularity here should activate her own party base and, if so, the chances are there will be a new Dole in the Senate come January.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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