WASHINGTON -- Political professionals believe that the voters like candidates for president to be what they describe as sure-footed -- meaning confident in their bearing and consistent in their message. By that standard, Bob Dole has just flunked a test by reversing himself on the trivial issue of whether he should accept a $1,000 contribution from a gay Republican group.
Last month the Senate majority leader supported the decision by his staff to return the contribution from the Log Cabin Republicans. "What I didn't want," he said then, "was the perception that we were buying into some special rights for any group, whether it is some lifestyle or whatever it might be, with gays or anyone else."
But this week, meeting with a group of reporters from Ohio, Mr. Dole blamed his staff for returning the money. "I think if they'd have consulted me, we wouldn't have done that, wouldn't have returned it. Well, everybody makes mistakes. My view is that because you accept the money doesn't mean you agree with their agenda."
The worst of both worlds
So now Bob Dole has managed the worst of both possible worlds. By returning the contribution originally, he appeared to be kowtowing to the cultural conservatives in his party for whom homosexuals are anathema. Now he seems to be recanting to try to placate moderates in the party who had been upset by the original decision.
The issue itself is essentially insignificant. No one believes presidential candidates are obliged to buy the agenda of every group from whom they accept campaign contributions. There are too many people with nutty ideas who have $1,000 to give.
But Mr. Dole's awkward handling of this issue -- creating it one month, reviving it a month later -- has to be viewed in the context of his campaign.
One question about Mr. Dole's candidacy all along has been whether he has been going too far in pandering to the religious right on issues that never have seemed high on his agenda. That was the case, for example, when he delivered a speech chastising Hollywood on sex and violence in movies and television programs.
The decision to return the Log Cabin contribution was another example. Mr. Dole has never been a gay basher like, for instance, television commentator Patrick Buchanan. On the contrary, before this campaign began the Kansas Republican had a reputation as relatively moderate and open-minded on social issues.
That was the Bob Dole who talked with the Ohio reporters. "I have a lot of people," he said. "I've got gays that are supporting my campaign. I don't discriminate against people. We don't run around the office checking people's lifestyles. We don't have a litmus test. I don't believe in discrimination."
The central question about Mr. Dole, however, has been whether he could navigate his way through the Republican primary campaign without making the kind of mistakes that have compromised his previous appearances on the national political stage.
What this misstep suggests is that Mr. Dole is not totally comfortable with all of the things he has felt obliged to do to siphon off support from Mr. Buchanan and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, the leading choices of the most conservative Republicans.
Indeed, in the eyes of longtime Dole watchers, there is a basic inconsistency in his campaign. He has been in Washington since 1960, and he has earned a reputation as an effective inside player who knows how to make things work here. But that image is supposed to be political poison these days, so you have the spectacle of Mr. Dole focusing on social questions and waving a copy of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution to prove his devotion to the concept of turning power back to the states.
The gay contribution issue is not serious enough to bring down the Dole campaign. He is far ahead of his rivals in opinion polls. He has the most money. And he has the support of most of the Republican establishment in almost every state.
But recent political history is replete with front-runners who stumbled and raised doubts about their sure-footedness. In 1972, for instance, Edmund S. Muskie of Maine compromised his campaign for the Democratic nomination with an emotional outburst in New Hampshire that raised questions about his temperament. In 1984 Gary Hart's headlong rush for the Democratic nomination after he won the New Hampshire primary was stymied by Walter Mondale when Mr. Hart showed himself to be politically clumsy in subsequent tests.
There are, in short, lessons Bob Dole should learn.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.