Dole's forced hard line softens his appeal

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- If you watch Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole carefully these days, you see a politician obviously squirming.

Mr. Dole's greatest strength as a political leader and potential candidate for president has been his history of knowing how to get things done inside the Beltway, usually meaning how to reach a compromise that you can live with. And in his campaign for the Republican nomination, the Kansas Republican has been stressing the line that he is the one candidate in the Republican field who has been tested over and over again.


Costly hard line

But in the showdown with President Clinton over the federal budget, Senator Dole has been forced to follow a hard line that is clearly costing him dearly.


A new CNN poll shows his approval rating in dealing with the budget crisis at 32 percent, his disapproval at 52. Those figures are not as bad as those for Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich -- 22 percent and 64 percent -- but they are not the stuff of which successful presidential campaigns are made.

Trails President Clinton

Indeed, the CNN poll also showed Mr. Dole running eight points behind President Clinton, a finding repeated in several recent surveys.

There is no mystery in any of this. Although obviously dismayed by the whole unseemly spectacle, the voters are telling one poll-taker after another that they side with the president against the Republican leadership.

An ABC News survey showed 54 percent supporting Mr. Clinton's budget, only 32 percent the Republicans in Congress. Asked whom to blame for the impasse over the budget, 49 percent of the voters questioned in the CNN poll said congressional Republicans, 26 percent said President Clinton and 19 percent named both.

Restraints on Dole

In other circumstances, it would have been no surprise if Mr. Dole and such equally pragmatic political allies as Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, had taken the lead in working out a deal with the White House. But this time Mr. Dole has been restrained by several factors.

For one thing, the Senate leader apparently feels obliged to yield to the more militant approach of Mr. Gingrich and the most conservative bomb-throwers among the House Republicans. To do otherwise, Mr. Dole would risk being accused of showing a softness on the issue that would nourish doubts about his commitment to conservative dogma. He clearly has not forgotten the rage visited upon then-President George Bush when he reversed himself on taxes five years ago.


Pressure from Gramm

And, of course, he could expect even more noisy pressure from Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, the leader of the hard-liners in the Senate and Mr. Dole's rival for the presidential nomination.

Senator Dole already discovered how that can happen when he suggested a few weeks ago that he wasn't necessarily committed to the full $245 billion in tax cuts included in the House version of the budget. The hue and cry from the right led by Mr. Gingrich was so loud that Senator Dole quickly backed down.

On the face of it, the efforts of the Senate leader to placate Mr. Gramm are something of a puzzle, because the Texas Republican's campaign for the nomination has been obviously stalled for months. Polls show him running well behind conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan as the chief rival to Mr. Dole. And in New Hampshire surveys, Senator Gramm is well down among the also-rans.

Conservative gestures

But all year Mr. Dole has shown the need to demonstrate his conservative bona fides. That was the case, for example, when he took on the issue of sex and violence in entertainment, the kind of cultural issue to which he had paid little attention during most of his 30-plus years in the Congress.


Gay supporters

It also was the case when he originally defended the decision by his campaign operatives to return a $1,000 contribution from an organization of gay Republicans.

It is a stretch to believe that a budget fight in November of 1995 is likely to influence voters' decisions in November of 1996 or, for that matter, even the decision of New Hampshire voters in February. But Bob Dole has been selling himself as the competent one who can get things done, not the rigid ideologue he has been playing lately.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.