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No nice guys


Dunbarton, N.H -- BOB DOLE slipped off his blue blazer at the last minute. Maybe when he saw a platter with a giant hog's head wearing a "Dole for President" bumper sticker and an American flag, he realized it was a casual affair. But as he stepped on stage in his French cuffs and blue silk tie, he still looked awfully starchy for a political pig roast on the Fourth of July.

Fortunately, he was lining up for a photo with some of the other Republican contenders, so starchy was not a liability. Here they were, paying homage to persnickety New Hampshire conservatives and smiling under a scalding sun, the hope of the GOP: Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Pat Buchanan. Bob Dornan was also there.

It was the most extraordinary collection of adder-tongued talent that had ever been gathered together at a Republican repast, with the possible exception of when Richard Nixon dined alone.

"You know what I say?" Pat Buchanan observed with an evil grin. "Any race that's got Phil Gramm and Bob Dole in it, I come off as warm and fuzzy. And any race with Bob Dornan in it, I come off as a progressive."

And therein lies the Republican rub. This is not morning in America. This is midnight inside the beltway.

After their 1994 triumph, Republicans had hoped in '96 to clamber back up to the shining city on a hill. But instead they seem to have retreated to a darker universe. The party that wanted a successor to Ronald Reagan is being offered a successor to Nixon.

"There's not a lot of milk of human kindness in the group," says Bill Kristol, the former Dan Quayle aide. "A lot of Republicans are depressed because it's supposed to be this bright new dawn and this same old cast of characters is back again. These guys actually believe all this liberal rhetoric about the country being full of angry white males.

"Americans," he concludes, "like to see a cheerful white male up there."

The beauty of a cheerful politician, of course, is that personal charm can help mask harsh policies. Even as his administration tried to make ketchup and pickle relish vegetables, Ronald Reagan still had that knockout smile.

A generation of electoral successes has made Republicans grumpier. Alan Keyes, the sole black candidate at the picnic, spoke about spirituality and the Declaration of Independence. But the others do not have sunny visions or visages. The only decent smile in the bunch belongs to Pat Buchanan, and that one has a disturbing Jack Nicholson edge. The unkinder, ungentler field has left some yearning for Colin Powell and Newt Gingrich. (The speaker's strafing tendencies are offset by a wacky optimistic streak.)

It is notable that most of the contenders have strong associations with Nixon, the party's dark and tormented king. Bob Dole was a Nixon protege. So was Pete Wilson, who was Nixon's advance man in the California gubernatorial race in 1962. Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander worked in the Nixon White House. Richard Lugar was known as Nixon's favorite mayor. Arlen Specter was the chairman of the '72 Nixon re-election campaign in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Buchanan offered this sarcastic introduction for his quiet wife, Shelley. "She's been working on your national health care plan all week, folks. Hah, hah, hah!"

Not everyone was so exuberantly mean. The two candidates most marked by accusations of surliness in the past were making nice noises.

Mr. Gramm, who during the Bork hearings referred to Edward Kennedy and Joe Biden as "the people who cheated in college," now makes a lot of cuddly references to his wife, Wendy, and Mama in Texas.

And even though you know that Mr. Dole goes home and says breathtakingly mean things about everyone, he is trying to avoid any more "Stop lying about my record" moments in public. So he watered down his wit. "If you really feel patriotic today," he said, gesturing to his wife, Elizabeth, the head of the American Red Cross, "she'll take your blood."

That passes for good dialogue in the noir primary. Get used to it.

;/ Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist.

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