For better or worse, Bob Dole is going to be nominated in San Diego in August, but the question is: Can he get elected?
There are several factors that will influence the answer. First, there is the state of the Dole campaign. While better organized than the Bush effort in 1992, the Dole campaign generates no enthusiasm from even Dole supporters. Moreover, the campaign itself is not in control of the situation. In late March, Mr. Dole met with 39 senators in a group put together by Senate Steering Committee Chairman Larry Craig of Idaho. Senator after senator told Mr. Dole that he belonged out in the countryside. "When you are the Republican presidential nominee you are Bill Clinton's equal. When you are dealing with matters in the Senate, you are diminished," Georgia Senator Paul Coverdell told Mr. Dole. Senator after senator agreed, and when the meeting was over, Mr. Dole said, "Good plan. We'll do it."
But the next day, Mr. Dole's Chief of Staff Sheila Burke, who made a point of accompanying Mr. Dole to the meeting but not staying for it, told The Washington Post that the notion that Mr. Dole should be out and about the country wasn't an issue. Mr. Dole belongs in Washington and doing business in the Senate, she said, because this is where he is most comfortable and this is where he wants to be.
Senators who took part in the meeting the day before were incredulous. But I'd bet that Sheila Burke would prevail over the wishes of the majority of the GOP caucus any day. Washington is where she is in control.
Second, there is the matter of Mr. Dole's running mate. One of the few opportunities Mr. Dole has to inject some enthusiasm into his campaign is to pick a running mate who will energize his base. But contrary voices inside the Dole camp are telling him to forget about his base. The theory is that Mr. Dole should worry about the broad picture. That is why the name of Colin Powell keeps coming up. And the names of Governors Christine Todd Whitman and Pete Wilson keep being mentioned.
Dole operatives minimize the potential of a conservative walkout if one of these candidates is picked. But now there is Pat Buchanan. Howard Phillips had offered Buchanan the nomination of the Taxpayer's Party which will be on ballots in many states. My guess is that Pat won't go that route, but it may well depend on how he is treated between now and the convention. And, of course, there is the impending platform fight on social issues. If that is not handled carefully, it has enormous potential to blow up.
My prediction is that Mr. Dole will choose a governor as his running mate to blunt the issue that he is "Beltway Bob," the ultimate insider. I have suggested that his pick will be George Voinovich, the governor of Ohio. Gov. Voinovich is one of the few governors who would not cause a contrast between the presidential and vice presidential nominees. Mr. Voinovich is Catholic and from a large industrial state. Catholics are now the swing voters in American politics.
Mr. Voinovich will be chosen, I predict, because he delivers some of what Mr. Dole needs and while he doesn't excite the Republican base, he will not be competition for Mr. Dole. And it is unlikely anyone will bolt the party because of such a choice.
Third, there is the Ross Perot factor. He is hinting he will run again, and has said if he doesn't, he will field a candidate. While some polls show that Mr. Perot would pull nearly what he did in 1992, I doubt that. In fact, some of the Republican-leaning Perot voters may be easier to return to the fold when it is argued that a vote for Perot is a vote for Clinton than some of the Democratic-leaning Perot voters. Mr. Perot is likely to hit at Clinton far harder than he did in 1992, when most of his fire was aimed at President Bush.
What of Bill Clinton? Right now his relatively high approval ratings are deceptive. The key number in a presidential race is his re-elect number. It remains low. The latest national survey had it as 41 percent, two points below what he got in 1992.
Mr. Clinton may have to worry about the economy, which always is a problem for an incumbent president when it isn't going well. The economy right now is soft and may be getting softer. Mr. Clinton will try to blame this on the Republican Congress, but it is unlikely to wash. It is clear that Clinton has prevailed on most policy questions with the Republican Congress.
And there is Whitewater, Vince Foster, Travelgate, and Paula Jones. Right now none of these is a big problem for Mr. Clinton, but collectively they help to determine his low re-elect numbers. He may be fortunate. The Whitewater case against Gov. Jim Guy Tucker isn't going terribly well for independent counsel Ken Starr. But if something breaks on any one of these fronts, it could damage Bill Clinton significantly. Of course, that assumes that the so-called mainstream media will play it for what it is worth. Don't count on that.
But frankly, I am much more worried about a Republican Congress. I look at what organized labor and its allies did in the special election in Oregon. Republicans had an excellent candidate. Democrats had a divisive primary and ended up with a whining Portland liberal, Ron Wyden, for their nominee. But thanks to extraordinary campaign work by the AFL-CIO, their environmentalist allies, and liberal lifestyle groups, Mr. Wyden was elected by 16,000 votes.
Look at the margins of half of the freshmen. A turnaround of a few thousand votes here and there and the Democrats would have continued to control the Congress. First Louis Farrakhan went to the Middle East and, after conferring with the enemies of this country, announced that $1 billion was on its way for the elections. The Clinton Administration has not lifted a finger to challenge this illegal activity. Then the AFL-CIO is about to raise dues so it can get another $37 million to use in key races against the freshmen. Bold statements by GOP Campaign Committee Chairman Bill Paxon of New York that the Republicans are sure to pick up 20 seats notwithstanding, there are no comparable resources being spent by conservatives and Republicans to protect the freshmen.
The Republicans will be very fortunate to hold their own. Most likely they will lose some seats in the House, and a Democratic takeover is not out of the question.
Forget the talk about 60 Republican seats in the Senate. The way things are shaping up, the Republicans will be lucky if they don't lose a seat or two there, as well. Some of the seats they thought they were going to win easily, such as Georgia, are proving to be a problem. And some Republican incumbents such as Jesse Helms in North Carolina and Strom Thurmond in South Carolina are in big trouble and may not be helped by the usual GOP presidential surge this year.
Most likely possibilities at this point: A narrow Clinton win with a diminished Republican Congress. A Dole electoral college win with a diminished GOP Congress. A Dole electoral college win with a slightly Democratic Congress.
But of course, how things look right now, at the end of March, is not how things may look in a few months. Jimmy Carter, at this stage, seemed certain to defeat Ronald Reagan if one were to believe the polls. And George Bush was the prohibitive favorite to lose in 1988 (when he won in a landslide) and to win in 1992 (when he lost in a landslide).
Mr. Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation is a veteran political activist and strategist in Washington. This article was adapted from his March issue of the Weyrich Insider.