Republican Bob Dole's big gamble -- running for president while holding on to his post as Senate majority leader -- hits crunch time after Congress returns from its August-Labor Day break. The Kansas senator will hardly be in a celebratory mood. After failing to win Iowa's straw poll vote, a phony exercise with very real atmospheric impact, his ratings fell from 51.7 percent to 36 percent in a more authentic public opinion sampling in Iowa.
Whatever its final effect on his presidential bid, Mr. Dole's position as Senate majority leader will place him in the center of a stormy showdown between the Clinton administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. It is, however, more complicated than that. While the House, under the disciplined leadership of Speaker Newt Gingrich, has enacted major parts of the GOP Contract with America, Mr. Dole has been caught between conservative and moderate Republican factions in the far more disputatious Senate.
His problem was on display when he was unable to push through a free-standing welfare reform bill or a defense authorization before the recess. Chances are Mr. Dole will have to fold controversial GOP proposals to change welfare from a federal entitlement plan to a block grant state system into a huge tax-and-spending "reconciliation" bill. President Clinton has threatened a veto that could shut down all but essential federal services on Oct. 1.
At least until his mid-summer faltering, Mr. Dole's out-front position seemed to help his campaign. While his chief rival, Sen. Phil Gramm, took pot shots at him, the majority leader emerged as the more statesman-like figure. But the necessity to soften the sharp edges of the House legislative package put him on the defensive. He was seen more and more as a politician willing to bend his essentially moderate record into conservative conformity. This was exemplified by his statement to the Republican National Committee that "if that's what you want, I'll be another Ronald Reagan."
At Ross Perot's Dallas extravaganza, Mr. Dole was outshone by the red-meat oratory of conservative Pat Buchanan. The senator will be at even more of a disadvantage when he speaks at a Christian Coalition forum in Washington this month.
Still, Mr. Dole is the front-runner. But he is a front-runner who has so far failed to engender popular enthusiasm as a presidential candidate or create a coherent legislative position as Senate majority leader. The congressional calendar will force him to concentrate on the latter role during the autumn season. How he does could determine his viability in the GOP primaries early next year.