Washington -- There's an easygoing bounce to Bob Dole's step these days, a fresh gleam in his eye.
At a stage in life when most guys have quit working -- he'll turn 72 this summer -- Mr. Dole may finally have the inside track on the toughest job in the world.
He'd be the oldest man ever to become president, if he makes it. His political hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was already retired when he was Mr. Dole's age.
But the Kansas senator isn't letting the age issue, or anything else, stop him from taking what looks like his best shot ever at the White House -- an opportunity that most people, including Mr. Dole, thought was gone for good.
"I think there's a lot of juice left in our generation," he says now.
And he may need every bit of that juice to convince Americans that, after embracing a new generation of leadership in 1992, they should turn again to the older generation to take the country into the 21st century. He'll also have to convince voters weary of career politicians that a consummate Washington deal-maker, an insider's insider who's spent nearly half his life on Capitol Hill, is the right man to head the conservative crusade to transform the government.
As Mr. Dole formally begins his third try for the nomination, he is squeezing every lesson, and every advantage, he can out of a lifetime of experience. For starters, he's playing up his war record in a way he's never done before.
He's timed the opening of his campaign to coincide with the golden anniversary of the defining moment in his life: a near-fatal wounding during World War II. Fifty years ago this week, as a young Army platoon leader in Italy, Mr. Dole had most of his right shoulder blown off during an attack on a German machine-gun nest.
He almost bled to death on the battlefield. A few months later, after he was shipped home to a military medical center in Topeka -- the city where he'll deliver his announcement speech this morning -- he nearly died again, from a series of infections. He would ultimately spend four grueling years in and out of hospitals, and never regain the use of his right arm -- a disability he's done all he can to hide.
He has described himself as "someone who's been tested in a lot of ways, and somebody who gets up every morning and knows that people have difficulties, because I have a little difficulty dressing." He must use a button hook to put on his shirt, and he keeps a pen, or rolled-up piece of paper, in his right fist when he's in public, to prevent his fingers from splaying.
"After 12 or 14 hours, his arm hurts. You'd never know it from him," says former Sen. Warren Rudman, a close friend. "He has this remarkable stamina, but he needs to avoid getting overtired. I wouldn't want to see him doing too many 16- or 18-hour days."
Mr. Dole has never been comfortable talking about his wounding, or the struggle to rebuild his life. But his campaign strategists rate his war record as one of the highest cards to play in the presidential contest.
It conveys a message about his strength of character. It also gives him a political edge over several rivals, including President Clinton and Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, his main Republican competitor at the moment, who avoided military service during Vietnam.
At the same time, Mr. Dole's World War II service is a reminder that he comes from a generation whose experiences are foreign to many Americans. Apparently referring to research done recently for his presidential campaign, Mr. Dole remarked last week that "half the people didn't know what D-Day was."
The senator insists that he's not worried about the age issue. But he was concerned enough to consider offering a pledge to serve only one term as president, an idea he has since rejected.
Presidents and age
"We're electing a president for the year 2000, and 'Dole for the future' is not a compelling campaign argument," says Mike Murphy, who produced TV ads for the 1988 Dole presidential campaign but is advising former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander this time.
Focus-group interviews conducted for the Dole campaign confirm what Ronald Reagan's pollster discovered long ago: that the voters most troubled by a candidate's advancing age are other seniors -- those with firsthand experience with the effects of aging.
Mr. Reagan, the oldest man to serve as president, was 3 1/2 years younger when he was sworn in than Mr. Dole would be on Inauguration Day. Dole aides say voters won't dwell on Mr. Dole's age, barring a serious illness or mental lapse in the heat of the campaign.
Like Mr. Reagan, Mr. Dole projects the vigor and vitality of a much younger man.
"Image is the whole thing," says Tony Fabrizio, a pollster who advised the '88 Dole campaign and may play a similar role this time. "When you put Bob Dole and Phil Gramm next to each other on TV, there is no question Dole looks older, but I don't think he looks 20-some years older."
Bill McInturff, the pollster who researched the issue for the Dole campaign, says when people were asked how old they believed Mr. Dole was, they "frequently thought he was five to eight years younger than his age."
Indeed, Mr. Dole, who underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 1991 (he says he's cured), shows few obvious signs of aging.
In several appearances this year, both on the campaign trail and the Senate floor, some observers have noticed a quaver in his voice, and he occasionally strains to hear questions at public events. But with what seems to be a permanent tan (he has a South Florida condominium, where he occasionally spends time), he appears robust and, at 6-foot-2, remains an imposing figure.
"I've known him for 20 years, and I have not noticed that he's lost a step," says Charles R. Black, who traveled with Mr. Dole in his ill-fated 1976 vice-presidential campaign.
Driven to succeed
"He can still outwork most of the other guys in the Senate, and he can go toe-to-toe with the other candidates," adds the GOP strategist, who is advising Mr. Gramm this time.
Mr. Dole's drive and capacity for work are legendary, dating to his years as county attorney in the prairie town where his family sometimes struggled to make ends meet during the Depression. He was "discovered" by Kansas Republican leaders, the story goes, in the early 1950s, when Huck Boyd, a national committeeman, happened by the Russell County courthouse at midnight. Seeing a light burning inside, he went to investigate and found Bob Dole at his desk, working.
More than 40 years later, not much has changed. Even by Washington's workaholic standards, Mr. Dole is single-mindedly devoted to his job.
It was his work that led to the breakup of his 24-year first marriage to Phyllis Holden, a nurse he met during his postwar rehabilitation. In 1975, he married Elizabeth Hanford, a high-powered lawyer who served in the Reagan and Bush cabinets and now heads the American Red Cross.
One of Washington's premier power couples, the Doles spend little time on the social circuit -- or anyplace else, it seems, outside work. When Mr. Rudman, who describes himself as very close to the senator, was asked to name some of Mr. Dole's social friends, he responded, "He doesn't socialize with anybody."
Donald J. Devine, a former Reagan campaign aide and now a senior Dole adviser, explains: "Reagan, if you gave him his preference, he'd go out to the ranch. Bob Dole would rather be campaigning than doing anything, except maybe being Senate leader. He'd be miserable if he didn't have those things to do."
Balancing campaign, job
Unlike Mr. Reagan, who delegated much authority to others and was able to concentrate his energy on running for president in the hard-fought 1980 primaries, Mr. Dole holds one of the most stressful jobs in Washington -- majority leader of the Senate -- and is known by his staff as a man loath to delegate anything.
On television, he's become a familiar figure, managing the flow of legislation on the Senate floor, often late into the night. The rest of his day is often spent behind closed doors, hammering out deals. Or it's in the passenger seat of his dark blue Lincoln Town Car, as he's chauffeured to a local hotel to address some convention or interest group, or perhaps to his campaign headquarters, a few blocks away, for a news conference, or to the airport, for a weekend campaign and fund-raising swing.
"He's up early," a top Senate aide says. "He works his staff to death. He's always on. He does it all himself. But he'll have to pace himself more this time than in the past."
The polls, which may mean next to nothing at this stage, call Mr. Dole the front-runner in the GOP chase -- maybe even the favorite to be the next president -- an exalted position he has never held for more than one week of his 45-year political career. The simple fact that he's once again running for president, however, is more than a little surprising to some.
Back in 1988, he told Richard Ben Cramer, whose book "What It Takes" chronicled Mr. Dole's life and that year's presidential hTC campaign: "You know I'm not running again. Sometimes you have to lose, and it makes you stronger. You can come back. But I'm not running again. This is my time."
Changing his mind
A few years after George Bush won the Republican presidential nomination over him in '88, Mr. Dole gave serious consideration to retiring. But after some very public vacillation, he decided to run for a fifth six-year Senate term in 1992. He won easily, as he has since Kansas voters first sent him to Washington as a congressman in 1960.
He decided to run in 1996, he says, after attending D-Day ceremonies in France last year on the 50th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe.
Looking around at his fellow veterans, he says, he thought about the ones who served and those who didn't come back alive. He concluded: "Maybe there's still one more mission, or one more call, to serve America."
A fuller explanation, his advisers acknowledge, would include the fact that Mr. Dole now finds himself the senior leader of a resurgent Republican Party, and is heartened by the stumbling efforts of a 47-year-old baby-boomer president who looks like an underdog to win re-election.
Making the most of his experience in government, Mr. Dole and his aides contend that the "adult leadership" he offers is just what voters will be hungering for in 1996.
A 'New Dole'?
And they're pushing the line that there's a "new Dole" this time around, a nicer, cuddlier, more "mature" Bob Dole, less inclined to deliver the cutting wisecrack or barbed retort about his opponents for which he is known.
Conservative, yet compassionate. Skeptics point out the notion of a "new Dole" has been a staple of every one of his presidential campaigns.
Those who know him personally, or have watched him over the years, agree that something is different about Bob Dole this time around. Not that he's mellowed exactly. Or suddenly sprouted a thicker skin, after more than four decades in politics.
Instead, they describe an almost transcendental Dole, a candidate with a fatalistic approach to the game. A man who, after decades of striving heroically for the top -- and failing each time -- has somehow risen above it all, and is prepared to take whatever happens in stride.
"He's come full circle in his own life, which is like five lives for anybody else. He's been left for dead, and he was too tough to die," says Mr. Cramer, his biographer. "It's like he knew he was dead [politically], and now he's not. And he has that sort of ease, where it's like, 'You can't hurt me anymore.' "