MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Bob Dole's rivals for the Republican presidential nomination ganged up on him yesterday, arguing that his performance in responding to President Clinton's State of the Union address demonstrated that he would be no match for Mr. Clinton in campaign debate.
Publicly, neutral party regulars praised the Senate Republican leader's response. Privately, however, there was concern that the 72-year-old Mr. Dole looked his age Tuesday night, especially in contrast to the youthful vigor of Mr. Clinton, who turns 50 in August.
Some independent observers agreed. "Once again, the nation saw the 'dismal Dole' it knows from past campaigns. He #F sounded hard-edged and harshly partisan and he looked old and stiff," said Allan Lichtman, a political scientist at the American University in Washington.
Reacting to the criticism, Mr. Dole, who was campaigning in Iowa yesterday, said he felt good about his speech and added, "I wouldn't change a word." An aide said Mr. Dole's office had received more than 2,000 calls yesterday, and the response was "overwhelmingly positive."
One of Mr. Dole's more prominent supporters, David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union, said the Senate leader had delivered "a good speech" but acknowledged that Mr. Dole "had the appearance of being uncomfortable. He's not Bill Clinton in terms of glibness, but he had the advantage of having a better message."
A GOP opponent, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, said Mr. Dole's televised rejoinder to the president showed that he was not the ** candidate to carry the GOP standard into battle with Mr. Clinton in the fall.
"It's clear from last night as it has been clear for years that Bob Dole has no plan," Mr. Gramm said. "If the 1996 presidential election becomes a contest of rhetoric, Bill Clinton will beat Bob Dole."
Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who for weeks has questioned Mr. Dole's ability to take on the president oratorically, called the Kansas senator's televised response "a preview of what we Republicans hope we won't see in the debates with Clinton."
The president, he said, "gave a masterful presentation of his fake vision, and Senator Dole was too decent to fake a vision he didn't have."
Patrick J. Buchanan, a news commentator who served in two GOP administrations, observed here that "the Republican Party got a shot across the bow" from Mr. Clinton, whom Mr. Buchanan accused of stealing themes he had first enunciated.
Of Mr. Dole's speech, he said: "Our pitcher got shelled. We better go to the bullpen if we're going to win the Series." He called the contrast between the deliveries of Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole "dramatic" in Mr. Clinton's favor.
Mr. Buchanan insisted his complaint about Mr. Dole concerned a lack of effective communication skills rather than any "generational" problem. The one-time communications director for President Ronald Reagan noted that Mr. Reagan "was of Dole's generation but there was no doubt Ronald Reagan had a vision, moved toward it and was not bogged down with wonkish procedures" that have dominated the budget battles in Washington.
But Mr. Alexander has been leaving the impression -- without saying so specifically -- that Mr. Dole is too old for the presidency. The Republican Party, Mr. Alexander says, should tell the Senate leader: "We appreciate your long service in the Senate, but you are not the right man to debate Bill Clinton."
Behind the scenes
The criticisms from Mr. Dole's GOP opponents contrasted sharply with mostly supportive public comment from other Republican leaders. Some other party veterans, however, privately expressed concern that Tuesday night's performance may generate new questions about his age and ability to challenge Mr. Clinton.
On the record, the party line was that Mr. Dole forcefully presented the Republican position in calling the president the "chief obstacle" to a balanced budget and "the last defender of a discredited status quo."
Some other prominent party strategists, however, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Dole appeared old and stiff in his delivery and sounded excessively strident, in contrast to the vigorous and conciliatory tone set by Mr. Clinton.
"It was a terrible strategy to put him in there," one longtime party campaign consultant said. "No way could you have him standing in a bare office and create the drama anywhere like the State of the Union in the House chamber."
Furthermore, this Republican said, "He looked old, mean and stilted. Dole needs to be moving. He's a vigorous guy. The reality is that it will start the age talk. It will reinforce concerns about it. Meanwhile, Clinton co-opted the Republican message. It could have been Ronald Reagan speaking. Obviously, it was an expectations game, and Clinton exceeded it, while Dole came off very weak."
No 'real spark there'
Another prominent Republican who has endorsed the Senate leader said: "What he said was all right. He made the real point, that Clinton talks the talk, but doesn't walk the walk. But there wasn't any real spark there. He's got to show some spark. Yeah, he looked old."
Democrats, not surprisingly, were willing to say on the record what loyal Republicans would not. Peter Hart, a pollster with strong Democratic ties, described his reaction to Mr. Dole as "one of surprise and dismay."
Having seen him delivering a speech in New Hampshire on television only days earlier, Mr. Hart said, "I thought he'd gotten it together. He was relaxed and looked ready for the campaign."
But on Tuesday night, Mr. Hart said, "He looked old, weak, halting, and his speech was defensive and small."
Mr. Keene said he was "not worried about the age question. Thus far it hasn't been an issue of great consequence." Mr. Dole, he added, "obviously looks older than 10 years ago but he maintains a schedule of activity that would kill you and me."
The problem, he said, "remains with his campaign staff. The problem is not in getting him to do more, but him doing too much."