Dole Close to Winning Nomination | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Dole Close to Winning Nomination

Greater Atlanta, Georgia's booming capital, is the home of The Coca-Cola Co., CNN and a cosmopolitan business community that includes, among many others, 105 Canadian firms. The city boasts the champion baseball Braves and will host the 1996 Summer Olympics.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 18, 1996

Dole Close to Winning Nomination

Greater Atlanta, Georgia's booming capital, is the home of The Coca-Cola Co., CNN and a cosmopolitan business community that includes, among many others, 105 Canadian firms. The city boasts the champion baseball Braves and will host the 1996 Summer Olympics. It prizes Jimmy Carter's peace centre, the birthplace of Martin Luther King, and, in suburban Cobb County, the congressional district of Newt Gingrich, leader of the 1994 Republican revolution. But presidential candidate Bob Dole chose a midtown Atlanta scrapyard called Central Metals Recycling Co. as the platform for his closing pitch in last week's "Junior Tuesday" round of 10 Republican nominating polls. The 72-year-old Senate majority leader doffed a green hard hat for some speech making amid stacks of compressed beer cans, crushed cars and old iron. Dole also shed his customary reluctance to beg for votes. He appealed to about 120 local listeners, and a wider TV audience, to help him overcome a faltering start in his bid to take on Bill Clinton in the Nov. 5 election.

"I've been told that people didn't vote for me because I didn't ask them," said Dole, as if in an afterthought to his cryptic nine-minute speech. "But I want you to vote for me tomorrow." The next day, March 5, Republicans in Georgia and nine smaller states did so - overwhelmingly. A 10-state sweep rescued Dole from the scrap heap of failure on his third attempt to win the nomination after dismal showings in 1980, 1988 and in the early weeks of the current contest. And after conquering New York state two days later, Dole spoke with assurance that now only Clinton stands in the way of recycling his 35-year career in Congress into a four-year term as U.S. president.

Campaigning confidently for the important "Super Tuesday" balloting this week (in populous Texas and Florida and five other states), Dole described his sudden success as "an overwhelming expression of Republican unity." The party's cause is "the urgent need to defeat Bill Clinton and return conservative leadership to the presidency." For himself, he said, "this is a solid win that tells me it's time to move on and start the race for November."

Few doubted Dole's implied assurance that the nomination is within his grasp, even though Republican voters in only 20 of the 50 states had been heard from as he spoke and, officially, the process runs to the end of June. But his claim of party unity had a hollow ring, despite a rush of former campaign foes and other Republicans to the Dole bandwagon. Both renegade Republican Pat Buchanan, representing the party's right wing on social issues, and millionaire Steve Forbes, the economic conservative, refused to quit after their mauling in New York, Georgia, five New England states, Maryland, Minnesota, Colorado and Washington state.

By persisting in challenging Dole, both men aim to earn at least the right to push their policies at the party's mid-August national convention. But last week, bitter feelings - especially between Dole and Buchanan - provoked a biting battle of words. Buchanan, riding a campaign bus he calls "the Pitchfork Express" through Tennessee, denounced Dole as "a hollow man." He said that if party convention organizers refused him a major speaking role, he would "break down the doors and take over." Forbes, declaring that "we're in this for the duration," dismissed Dole's policies in a word as "drift."

Dole, expressing fears among Republicans that Buchanan might form his own party - or seek to join Texas billionaire Ross Perot's new Reform party - sniped back at the former White House speechwriter and TV talk-show host. "He says he's a Republican one day," said Dole. "The next day, he's talking about a third party. That's not the way we build our party. That's the way we tear it down, become a little group without any influence at all in American government, American politics." Asked whether he would seek Buchanan's support, Dole replied: "I'm not going to put my hand out and get it chopped off."

Unless Buchanan's pugnacious approach can be tamed and Dole's acerbic sarcasm restrained, Dole's victory may prove as hollow as his contention that the party is unified. The rifts exposed in the often-abusive nomination campaign remain to be bridged if the party's convention in San Diego is to escape the divisive debates that marred the previous national party assembly four years ago in Houston. Buchanan played a leading role in what one assessment at the time termed "wall-to-wall ugly."

Even before Dole's triumphs last week, the Senate leader portrayed the party's internal dispute as serious combat. The scrapyard setting for his Atlanta speech itself was clearly chosen to illustrate that mainstream Republicans may represent the worker's interest as well as, or better than, Buchanan, who campaigns against the loss of jobs to free trade and corporate downsizing. (A giant sign behind Dole as he spoke: "Bob Dole and employees of Central Metals know exports equal U.S. jobs.") And his appearance at a Jewish-owned business with a mainly African-American labor force stood as an implicit rebuke to anti-Semitism and racism (Buchanan has been openly accused of both). "There is a fight going on right now - or a struggle, that's a better word - for the heart and soul of the Republican party," said Dole. "We need to reach out to everyone in America."

As Dole regained his original position as the favorite in the nomination race, the rush to his camp became a stampede. Among the first was Newt Gingrich, albeit in a roundabout way. Gingrich once despised Dole. His frequently resurrected gibe of a decade ago derided Dole as "the tax collector for the welfare state." Gingrich openly considered challenging Dole for the presidential nomination last year. The day before the nominating election in Georgia, his home state, Gingrich cast an absentee ballot in Washington - and then refused to tell reporters who he voted for. But a Gingrich staffer told a Dole staffer. Dole, praising a claque of congressional supporters present for his scrapyard speech, added his thanks to Gingrich "for voting absentee for Bob Dole this morning - I appreciate that." Acknowledged Gingrich later: "I would never reject the gratitude of the next president. Bob Dole is a close personal friend and great leader - and I did vote for him this morning."

After Junior Tuesday, Dole's two mainstream rivals - Lamar Alexander, former Tennessee governor, and Richard Lugar, the Indiana senator - dropped out and endorsed Dole. (Only two days earlier, Alexander had been repeating his campaign pitch that "Senator Dole represents not many ideas.") That effectively reduced the field, nine strong in January, to Dole, Forbes and Buchanan.

Dole, aiming to finish off Forbes and Buchanan in vote-rich Texas and Florida, also won important support from the leading local Republicans in those states - the sons of his onetime political enemy, former president George Bush. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, one of the only Republican state leaders who had withheld public approval, and Jeb Bush, who narrowly lost a 1994 election for Florida's governorship, spoke up for Dole at a ceremony for the candidate in Austin, the Texas capital. Then, Dole paid a visit to the former president in Houston. He received a sort-of nod of approval from Bush senior, who has been cool to Dole since they competed for the presidential nomination in 1988. A photo-op conversation, between two men of few words and sometimes verbless sentences, was a classic in cryptography. Dole, sitting in Bush's favorite White House chair, at his host's invitation: "It fits all right. I could get used to it." Bush: "Darn right. Fits well. And most appropriate."

Whether Dole ever gets to occupy his own chair in the Oval Office depends first of all on clinching the nomination soon. His campaign spending is reported to be approaching a legal ceiling for private donations and matching federal money he receives under election law. He must also strive to emerge from the nomination process with a party able to suppress its wrenching internal disputes, at least until the November election.

Beyond his own party problems stands the potential danger of Perot, the political maverick who captured a decisive block of conservative votes in the 1992 presidential election and allowed Clinton to win. Last week, in an interview with The Washington Post, Perot signalled that he opposes any alliance with Buchanan. "His message is not mine," he said. But Perot's Reform party is striving to get its name on the November ballots in a state-by-state drive, although, so far, it has succeeded in only five states. He foresees a Reform convention around Labor Day, with party members deciding who should run for the U.S. presidency in November.

Even without Perot as a spoiler, the Republicans face in Clinton a canny campaigner already proving his readiness to bend to almost any political breeze and co-opt Republican policies. Indeed, Clinton's recent speeches seem almost an echo of Dole's repeated campaigning call for "common sense conservatism" (a mantra of Ontario's Premier Mike Harris on his way into office in 1995).

After capturing New York last week, Dole noted that "in January, Bill Clinton spoke to us from the White House and said, 'The era of big government is over.' Tonight, New York spoke to the White House and said, 'Yes, and the era of Bill Clinton is over, too.' " Three days earlier in his Atlanta scrapyard speech, Dole touched on the one certainty amid the guessing of what might happen before November. "This race is far from over," he said. "And even if we're successful tomorrow, it's going to go on and on, and probably on."

Maclean's March 18, 1996