Four more years?

National | Political analysis: Will Dole also drag down the Congress?

Issue: "Children of Chernobyl," April 13, 1996

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.

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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.


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