Four years ago, at precisely this point in the presidential campaign, George Bush's poll numbers were in a free fall from the rarefied 90 percent popularity he enjoyed during the Gulf War. Republicans had no message and no "vision" (which Mr. Bush regularly disparaged), but they consoled themselves that character, maturity, and experience would prevail over youth, loose morals, and inexperience. They shouldn't make that mistake a second time with Bob Dole.
Party leaders face three choices.
They can place their faith in special counsel Kenneth Starr in hopes that he will get a credible and damaging indictment against one or both of the Clintons before Election Day.
They can accept the unpleasant prospect of a decisive Clinton reelection triumph based on personal and political deception that would, among other things, produce two or three liberal Supreme Court justices and a reign of legal error lasting another 40 years.
Or they can advance their efforts to reform government and restore public confidence in it by persuading Mr. Dole to relinquish the nomination and throw open the Republican National Convention next month in San Diego. Such an act would forever enshrine Mr. Dole as a man who put his party and its prospects, along with its principles, ahead of his own interests. It would also electrify the party and put the smug people of the Clinton administration into a defensive posture from which they might never recover.
Mr. Dole's dismal performance on Larry King Live last month was the final straw. Mrs. Dole played Kathie Lee to his Frank Gifford, speaking for her husband, finishing his sentences, telling viewers what "Bob Dole believes" and attempting to dilute the age factor.
Worse yet, Mr. Dole announced his selection of "moderate" pro-choice New York Rep. Susan Molinari as the convention's keynote speaker. Dr. Jack Kevorkian might have been a better choice, given Mr. Dole's politically suicidal tendencies. Mr. Dole said his choice of Molinari "is a big statement about women." What does that mean? Wouldn't it have been a big statement about women (and about babies who deserve a right to live) if he had named a pro-life keynoter?
A recommendation that Mr. Dole withdraw is being considered by some who as recently as a month ago thought his candidacy might be saved. William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, told me that he and two senior members of his staff were discussing the possibility.
What would it take to make Mr. Dole step aside? Mr. Kristol thinks House Speaker Newt Gingrich "who will never be president, so what does he have to lose?" could make it happen, especially if he were backed up by William Bennett and Jack Kemp. I would add Sen. John McCain of Arizona. The effort might not work, but should be made.
Republicans must enter whatever is the contemporary equivalent of a smoke-filled room, now, not in San Diego, and ask themselves whether it is worth losing everything that conservatives have worked for since Barry Goldwater just so Bob Dole can go down in flames, taking other Republicans with him. Is giving Mr. Dole the nomination just because he's waited in line the longest worth unleashing Bill and Hillary Clinton for four more years?
An open convention could nominate a "fresh" face in the sense that he would not have been beaten to death by sound bites and irrelevancies as Dole has. Who that might be is up to the delegates. An open convention would energize the press so that the Republican nominee would seem electable.
Such a course would be better than disaster, and a growing number of conservatives around the country think that disaster is the destination of the Dole candidacy. If they are going to lose, they reason, they would rather do it with someone who inspires more faith and trust than Mr. Dole.
Those who want to stick with Mr. Dole must say by what scenario they believe he'll win. Mr. Dole is a great American, but a terrible presidential candidate. Many would consider him an even greater American if he stepped aside.
© 1996, Los Angeles Times Syndicate