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Washington's Top Republican

In the eternal struggle for power on Capitol Hill, Senate Republican leader Robert Dole emerges as the clear winner of the Nov. 3 election.

His position has been enhanced, ironic as it may seem, because his party lost the White House and remains very much in the minority in both houses of Congress. He now stands poised to be the most visible and influential Republican on the Hill since the days of Everett McKinley Dirksen.

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The election results liberated Bob Dole. No longer does he have to play loyal lieutenant to George Bush, the fellow who beat him in a bitter New Hampshire primary in early 1988. ("Tell him to stop lying about my record," Mr. Dole snarled as he fell victim to a typical Bush negative ad campaign.)

No longer does he have to champion the Reagan-Bush supply-side economics theories that have quadrupled the national debt. (The Kansas senator tells this joke: "A bus filled with supply siders goes over the cliff killing all aboard. That's the good news. The bad news is that there were three unoccupied seats.")

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Not all of Bob Dole's acerbic cuts are directed at fellow Republicans. Not by any means.

Hardly had the Democratic president-elect time to savor the voting returns on election night when Senator Dole was on the air to declare that "57 percent of the American who voted in the presidential election voted against Bill Clinton, and I intend to represent that majority on the floor of the U.S. Senate."

He claimed the allegiance of Ross Perot voters, saying he concurred in their deficit-cutting agenda. A few days later, he said "there are things we can do, if we feel it necessary in the national interest, to slow things down. And we'll be prepared to do that, based upon what develops." Provided his caucus holds together, he can filibuster or put legislation "on hold" until the Clinton administration is ready to deal.

Although the New York Times quickly huffed editorially at "Bob Dole's politics of rancor," such an interpretation misses the personal elation the senator must feel as the suddenly anointed chief spokesman for his party.

"I am sort of looking forward to a little different opportunity," he commented by way of understatement. Nor does it take into account a lifetime record in which Mr. Dole's instincts as a partisan battler often are subordinated to the timeless congressional practice of quiet accommodation.

Two men who should know -- former Senate Democratic leader Mike Mansfield and former Senate Republican leader Howard W. Baker -- agree that Senator Dole's clout is enhanced as leader of a minority party on the outs.

"Not every Democrat in the Senate was happy when [Jimmy] Carter won in 1976," Mr. Baker told The Sun. "They were happier when the president was a member of the other party." That, he said, applies as well to Mr. Dole and today's Senate Republicans.

Mr. Mansfield predicts that Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell will find his task more difficult and weighed down with more responsibility now that he has to steer an administration's agenda through to passage rather than oppose it.

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Mr. Mansfield should know. He was Presidents John F. Kennedy's and Lyndon B. Johnson's majority leader during the turbulent Sixties. He said Mr. Dole's role is now very important as the "No. 1 Republican" and forecast that "he will act with more statesmanship than people expect."

This latter comment reflects Mr. Mansfield's relationship 30 years ago with Mr. Dirksen. At that time the colorful "wizard of ooze" enlivened Capitol Hill with his campaign to make the marigold the national flower, with his "Ev and Charlie" [Halleck] and "Ev and Jerry" [Ford] Shows/cum press conferences in the Senate press gallery, and his with memorable phrase that "the oil can is mightier than the sword."

Mr. Dirksen was indeed "Mr. Republican" in those days. He was the only man who could deliver the votes to pass landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. And Mr. Mansfield himself poured enough oil on the Illinois senator to have him fulfill that role.

In the interval between Mr. Dirksen's death in 1969 and Mr. Dole's accession to the GOP leadership in 1985, two other Republicans served in that position -- Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania and Tennessee's Mr. Baker.

Both men were were amiable, quiet and accommodating, seeking neither the showboat role of a Dirksen nor the point-man combative role of a Dole. Mr. Scott, a moderate and an intellectual, had to serve Republican presidents: Richard Nixon, who lacked the former characteristic, and Gerald Ford, who lacked the latter. Senator Baker had to deal with the Democratic Carter administration and, at severe cost to his presidential ambitions, dismayed the GOP right wing by pushing hard for the Panama Canal Treaty. Later, he suffered the usual eclipse when a member of his own party, Ronald Reagan, went to the White House.

Senator Dole's fate during the Reagan-Bush years was no better. An old-time conservative with a belief in a balanced budget, he had to go along with the supply-side, borrow-and-spend programs of these two Republican presidents.

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Trying to reverse these policies, he had a big hand in the 1990 bipartisan budget agreement that put a cap on discretionary spending. President Bush said during the past campaign that this agreement was a mistake; it's a good bet Senator Dole did not concur.

Now that he no longer has to look over his shoulder at the White House, how will Bob Dole operate as a relatively free agent?

He will often be unable to suppress the streak of anger that permeates his political persona. He will be meticulous, not condescending, in giving mention to Bob Michel, the genial House Republican leader on his way to retirement. He will cooperate with Bill Clinton when he thinks it is in the national interest, especially if the next president is as centrist as he professes to be.

But Bob Dole will be tough -- and No. 1.

Since the election he has called for the pardoning of former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and others implicated in the Iran-contra scandal.

He has demanded an investigation of the special counsel's office conducting that investigation.

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He was warned that if Mr. Clinton seeks to end the ban on homosexuals in the military by executive order it might "blow the lid off the Capitol." He has told the president-elect to "slow down."

And he has asserted that Republicans will look closely at Clinton nominees and be "very selective" in opposing any "bad legislation" coming from the White House. "We're not going to be patsies and floor mats and rubber stamps."

This is the stuff of the sound-bite and the quotable one-liner. But a searching look at the career of this 69-year-old Midwesterner, a man who fought his way up from humble beginnings and severe wounds in World War II, suggests that Mike Mansfield may be right -- that with his new responsibilities Bob Dole will be more the statesman than people expect and will turn his party back to the center -- a goal Senator Baker fervently endorses.

After Mr. Clinton met with congressional leaders Thursday, Mr. Dole said, "I'd give him credit for being realistic. I think he knows he's got some constituencies out there that are going to have to hold their breath for a while."

"We're going to have a lot of areas of agreement, we're going to have some areas of disagreement," Mr. Dole said. ". . . But our common interest is in moving the country forward, about jobs, the economy, health care, deficit reduction, whatever it may be."

Earlier in the week, at a party meeting in Wisconsin, Mr. Dole said, "The Republican Party must be the party of the the big tent. Let us be the party of inclusion."

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This is a code-language rebuff to the Pat Buchanans and Pat Robertsons of the party, the leaders of the nationalist right and the religious right who set a tone of exclusion at the GOP national convention in Houston last August.

It also may be the first bugle call for another run for the presidency. Bob Dole will be 73 in 1996, six months younger than Ronald Reagan was when he won a second term. He is as close to the center of the Republican Party today as anyone on the scene -- a man who favors "lower taxes, lower spending, fewer regulations, less government and a strong and secure America."

When asked the inevitable question, he says it is "too early to tell" but does not deny he is thinking about a 1996 presidential candidacy. This is smart politics. The higher his profile, the greater his potential, the more effective he will be as the country's "Mr. Republican" until someone else comes along.



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