PHILADELPHIA -- As he nears his 72nd birthday next weekend, Sen. Bob Dole has lived a lifetime in Republican politics. "I've been in it for a while," he reminded party leaders yesterday.
His 4 1/2 decades of experience are showing these days, as Mr. Dole gives his rivals for the presidential nomination a lesson in how to wage a front-running campaign. The Kansas senator waltzed into and out of this weekend's big Republican gathering in Philadelphia while his opponents stood around waiting for him to stumble but afraid to try to trip him.
In his speech, Mr. Dole all but ignored the other eight candidates, except to say that "they're all friends of mine." Instead, in what aides said was an attempt to reinforce the notion that his nomination is inevitable, Mr. Dole uncorked a sizzling attack on the man he hopes to face in the general election, accusing President Clinton of using the politics of fear to aid his re-election campaign.
Mr. Dole described as "Republican lite" a series of recent Clinton initiatives on the budget, school prayer and moral values, and he said that the president's repeated criticisms of a regulatory reform measure moving through Congress amount to little more than scare tactics.
"He says we may have plane crashes if Republican regulatory reform takes place. You'll be eating dirty meat, drinking dirty water. All the scare tactics he can dream up, trying to frighten the American people," Mr. Dole said.
"The president's strategy is fear. Fear. Tell the American people to be afraid. Republicans will do all these bad things." Mr. Dole maintained that "fear will not win" in 1996.
Unlike his Republican rivals, who are struggling to gain attention for their candidacies, Mr. Dole did not dispatch a large entourage to the Republican National Committee's three-day meeting. He didn't spend his campaign money on cocktail receptions for the party leaders, as others did. And while his opponents eagerly sought out media attention, Mr. Dole avoided taking questions from reporters.
Although the success of the new Republican majority in Congress is by no means assured, Mr. Dole's decision to hold on to his post as Senate majority leader has proved to be a wise one. It has given him an opportunity to claim credit for some high-profile Republican victories, including the blocking of Mr. Clinton's nomination of Dr. Henry Foster to be surgeon general and securing passage of a balanced budget resolution.
He has exploited his position in other ways. Yesterday, for instance, he moved quickly to protect his lead in several key states by announcing that he would soon be offering a measure to cut federal inheritance taxes. The plan -- similar to one Patrick J. Buchanan, one of Mr. Dole's Republican rivals, promoted during a recent campaign swing through Iowa -- would benefit the wealthiest Americans, along with farmers and owners of family businesses, important constituencies in next winter's primaries.
Republican politicians are impressed by Mr. Dole's sure-footed performance to date. In the corridors and back rooms in Philadelphia, the private talk from party leaders and supporters of rival candidates was about the smooth campaign organization Mr. Dole has put together and the growing likelihood that, barring some unforeseen event such as a health problem, he will be the nominee in 1996.
Most were quick to add that Mr. Dole has a number of political weaknesses, starting with his age -- he would be the oldest man ever to become president. In addition, many staunch conservatives are convinced that he does not share their beliefs, indeed that he has no strong ideological convictions at all.
As if to confirm that view, Mr. Dole remarked that political commentators had said the Republicans gathered in Philadelphia were yearning for another Ronald Reagan. Then he added, "Well, I'm willing to be another Ronald Reagan, if that's what you want. I'll be another Ronald Reagan."
His opponents, who all spoke at the gathering except California Gov. Pete Wilson, were careful to attack Mr. Dole only by innuendo, if at all.
Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander contended that the nomination should not be awarded as "a thank you for a long-serving senator." Pressed by reporters, he acknowledged that he was referring to Mr. Dole but quickly added that he has never raised the age issue and wasn't doing so now.
Texas Sen. Phil Gramm kept to the issues, criticizing a Dole-supported welfare reform plan passed by the Senate Finance Committee and announcing that he would be pushing his own, tougher alternative.
"We are not going to change America by cutting deals in Washington, D.C.," Mr. Gramm said, an oblique reference to Mr. Dole's penchant for legislative deal-making. ("It's easy" to make proposals, Mr. Dole shot back later, in apparent response, "if you don't care if it'll pass.")
Privately, one Republican official said the other candidates had missed an opportunity to gain media attention, and possible support, by delivering a full-throated attack on Mr. Dole. Others said that doing so would have run the risk of shattering party unity and might have backfired.
"Dole's a front-runner with a strong memory," said Roger Stone, who is managing Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's presidential campaign. "These guys are potential vice presidents who don't want to risk offending him."