WASHINGTON -- For a guy who not long ago was said to be thinking of retiring out of boredom, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole is probably riding higher than at any time since he was elected majority leader nine years ago. In fact, considering the fact that he was no better than second banana in the GOP to President Ronald Reagan then, this could be Bob Dole's best time ever in his Washington political career of more than 32 years.
With no Republican in the White House, and with the Senate standing as the prime roadblock to the agenda of Democratic President Clinton, Dole can lay claim with little challenge to the title of Mr. Republican. Only his age -- he will be 70 on July 22 -- and his presidential track record -- defeats in 1980 and 1988 bids for the GOP nomination and a disastrous vice-presidential run in 1976 -- stand in the way of a realistic try for his party's presidential nomination in 1996. He says he hasn't ruled out the possibility.
Those are, to be sure, very big ifs. On the age matter, though, Dole's physical and mental vigor belie the image of a septuagenarian, and Reagan demonstrated that age is not an insurmountable barrier. The bigger hurdle may be Dole's acid tongue and short fuse, which have surfaced at critical times, to his undoing, in high-visibility campaigns.
Still, his response to Bill Clinton's "joke" the other night charging him with practicing pork-barrel politics on behalf of his Kansas constituents -- Dole said that "if the White House wants to play hardball, I'm ready to suit up" -- suggests that the Republican leader has lost none of the feistiness for which he is famous.
If the president was trying to be funny, he needs a new gag writer, not only because he seems to have had his facts very wrong in saying Dole was seeking $23 million to convert a seniors center in Kansas into a boathouse, but because he needs to alienate Dole right now like he needs a hole in the head.
Having witnessed Dole's ability to hold his fellow Republican senators together to thwart his economic stimulus package, Clinton was making sounds of conciliation and compromise at the time he tried to be funny by characterizing the Senate minority leader as a prime pork-barreler. Dole, a master at hardball politics, wasn't about to let the incident go by without a tough retort.
At the same time, Dole knows that anything that boosts him further as the chief antagonist of the Democratic president when the Republican Party is trying to regroup after its 1992 loss is golden for his standing in the GOP and for his ability to draw news media attention.
While Dole is rightly known as the sharpest wit in the Senate, he also has the memory of an elephant when it comes to real or perceived slights and attacks.
Although as his party's leader in the Senate he supported President George Bush repeatedly, he never forgot candidate Bush's damaging charge in the critical 1988 New Hampshire primary that he "straddled" on new taxes, which Dole said was "lying about my record."
After those two failed campaigns for the presidency, and a vice-presidential run he'd probably rather forget, Dole might have been expected to give up thoughts of ever occupying the Oval Office.
But he has labored long in the party under men whose talents -- notably Bush's -- he obviously has seen as at least no greater than his own. And after successful prostate surgery he appears to be in good physical shape.
Dust-ups with the president of the opposition party never do any politician much harm within his own party, and in this case could help stiffen the collective backbone of the GOP in Congress and push Dole even further out front as Mr. Republican. But if he does indeed covet one more try for the presidency himself, he has to think about voters beyond his own party, and the danger of being seen as Mr. Obstructionist.
So far, Dole has dodged that bullet with such actions as his outspoken backing of Clinton's plans to use military force in Bosnia if necessary to end or curtail the ethnic cleansing being carried out there.
In any event, the Senate minority leader appears to be at the top of his game, and that can be no laughing matter for the latest joke-teller in the White House.