WASHINGTON -- Tom Rath, a leading Republican activist in New Hampshire, got a telephone call the other day from Bob Dole, who told him how much he was enjoying his "vacation" in the state that will hold the first presidential primary in 1996. When Rath asked him what he was doing, the Senate minority leader replied: "I'm sitting down here on the dock with a telephone."
This is Bob Dole's idea of a vacation. In his week in New Hampshire -- interrupted by a charter flight to speak to the National Governors Association in Tulsa, Okla., and back -- he has appeared on two network and several local television and radio programs, made a speech to a Chamber of Commerce in Portsmouth, held a press conference with local Republican officials, attended a party reception and played host to several visiting national political reporters equally anxious to get away from Washington.
Nor is Dole coy about it. "We're not going to kid anybody," he said the other day. "We're up here looking around."
The story of how Bob Dole spends his summer vacation is a welcome diversion in the dog days of August. But it would be a mistake to imagine that it has anything to do with what happens in that presidential primary two and a half years in the future.
It is true that Dole may use his visit in New Hampshire to cement his relationships with state Republicans of prominence, including Sens. Bob Smith and Judd Gregg, whose support he would value if he seeks the presidential nomination. But the history of recent presidential campaigns makes it clear that most voters there, as opposed to a few thousand party activists, don't take any interest until the last few weeks before the February primary.
And it has become equally clear that what happens in New Hampshire is shaped to a large degree by what happens elsewhere -- meaning in the Iowa precinct caucuses and, more importantly, on the national television networks. Candidates don't win New Hampshire primaries on shoe leather alone; they need some credibility.
For Dole, however, New Hampshire may be a special case -- a bone in his throat that he wants to dislodge before starting all over again. He arrived here in 1988 having defeated then Vice President George Bush in those Iowa caucuses. Although Bush had the backing of much of the state party establishment and a lead in the New Hampshire polls, Dole's success in Iowa gave him the impetus to close the gap to the point that a week or 10 days before the vote he appeared at least even and perhaps ahead.
But Dole refused to sign a "no tax" pledge in a debate late in the campaign, apostasy in a state that has made a fetish out of low taxes, and Bush exploited the opening with a final weekend television assault that was credited with giving him a victory in the primary and putting him on the road to the nomination.
Dole, moreover, compounded the felony that night when asked on live television by NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw if he had any message he wanted to deliver to Bush, he replied: "Stop lying about my record" -- a riposte that revived the image of the Kansas Republican as a sometimes bad-tempered and harsh political personality.
Given this history, it would not be surprising if the Senate Republican leader were not thinking to himself how nice it might be to achieve a political redemption here now that, with Bush history, he is the nation's most powerful Republican and the winter book leader of the opinion polls on potential 1996 nominees.
Dole also understands, nonetheless, that there is a long history of early front-runners vanishing in the dust when a campaign begins in earnest. He will be 73 years old in 1996, and he can expect competition from at least a half dozen other prominent Republicans. It may be the year for generational change within his party. And no one can predict now what kind of candidate the Republicans will need because they cannot forecast how vulnerable President Clinton will appear.
So Bob Dole is enjoying his vacation making his telephone calls from a dock, perhaps even putting aside his blue suits and red ties. And political insiders are enjoying speculating about his prospects and those of his rivals. But the story of Dole in New Hampshire is mostly what they call light summer reading.