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Dole doesn't need to head the GOP's morals squad


WASHINGTON -- At the most superficial level, it is hard to argue with the politics of the attack directed at the entertainment industry by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.

Who, after all, is in favor of "nightmares of depravity" in their movies? Who wants more songs "extolling the pleasures of raping, torturing and mutilating women"?

Although Dole is making an obvious appeal to the culturally conservative Republicans for whom "family values" are paramount, the issue he has seized upon is one that reaches a great many Americans dismayed by the bizarre content of much popular music and films.

But there is at least some reason to wonder about Dole's sudden interest in the kind of social issue he has largely ignored for years.

Is this an example of the 71-year-old Kansas Republican giving vent to strongly held views or, as his critics are already saying, a case of a candidate bending himself out of shape to fit what he and his strategists see as the political demands of the moment?

In Dole's case in particular, the alacrity with which he has seized on the issue seems to counter the image he has achieved over the years as a political leader far more interested in nuts-and-bolts operation of the government than in carrying out some long-held vision for American society.

When Dole is asked why he wants to be president, for example, he avoids any flights of rhetorical fancy and replies that he has the experience to function as president that none of his rivals for the Republican nomination can match.

When questions are raised about such issues as abortion rights and the prayer amendment, Dole gives the conventional conservative responses. But they are not issues he has been bringing into the dialogue himself.

Now he is saying, in effect, that he intends to compete with the darlings of the far right, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, as the replacement for former Vice President Dan Quayle as the arbiter of family values.

The question for Dole is whether this new interest in morality in the entertainment business will ring true with a broad cross-section of Republicans and the electorate at large.

Or, put another way, the question is whether he is simply playing "primary politics" with the notion of moving back to the center as a general election candidate, a strategy for which there is ample precedent in both political parties.

In this case, Dole again appears to be reacting to Gramm, who already seems to have spooked him further to the right on several other issues, such as assault weapons and the $l nomination of Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. to be surgeon general.

After a career spent in trying to make the federal government function more effectively to meet his ends, Dole is now competing with Gramm even in his zeal to dismantle it. He has taken to brandishing his copy of the 10th Amendment as evidence of his commitment to turning power back to the states.

The puzzling thing here is that there is little evidence so far that Gramm necessarily poses a serious threat to Dole in the contest for the nomination.

That may happen, but right now, Dole is in such a strong position -- both in terms of his standing in opinion polls and his support within the party establishment -- that he is able to set the agenda for the campaign.

No one is suggesting that Dole doesn't believe what he is saying. Nor does anyone who knows him imagine he is advocating government censorship, the complaints of liberals to the contrary notwithstanding. But it would be hard to argue that this is not a brand-new Bob Dole.

From the outset, Dole has brought imposing assets to the Republican contest. He is a tough partisan who has shown he can achieve conservative goals because he knows how the system works in Congress.

And although he was once considered more conservative than his party as a whole, that is no longer the case. On the contrary, surveys show that he has strong backing among moderate Republicans as well as conservatives.

But now Dole is adding another dimension by presenting himself as the take-no-prisoners leader of the Republican morality police. And the operative question is whether he can play that part convincingly.

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