NORTH CONWAY, N.H. -- "I would not be co-president."
There. She said it.
It is as important a part of Elizabeth Dole's message these days as the heroic, sepia-toned portrait of her husband she paints on the campaign trail, trying to cast the now struggling front-runner as the rightful heir to the throne.
And it is a theme that Mrs. Dole, an aggressive campaigner and former Reagan and Bush official, sounds in a million ways:
In her vow to return to her job as president of the Red Cross even if her husband, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, lands in the White House next year. In her promise to take on "charitable giving" -- a far cry from health-care reform -- as her pet issue if she becomes first lady. In her insistence that she will not sit in on cabinet meetings because well, hey, been there, done that.
And then, in case you missed the point, she says it flat out: "I don't see it as a co-presidency. You don't elect two people. You elect one." She says it not with malice or sarcasm -- that is not Liddy Dole's style -- but with a ruby-lipped smile that is really more of a wink. After all, we all know what she's really saying:
She would not be Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Funny, but the two political spouses and ambitious career women actually have much in common. Mrs. Clinton: class president at Wellesley College, Yale Law School, high-powered career as an attorney. Mrs. Dole: student body president at Duke University, Harvard Law School, high-powered career as a government official, including two cabinet posts.
And the similarities continue, almost eerily so. Mrs. Dole, who hails from a wealthy North Carolina family and has a personal fortune of about $2 million, has a history of investments and financial arrangements -- some with a former Dole adviser who eventually went to prison for tax fraud -- that are now sparking questions of the Whitewater/cattle futures ilk.
What's more, Mrs. Dole's receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees -- from groups that had policy matters before her husband in Congress -- is generating the kinds of conflict-of-interest concerns that have dogged the current two-career couple in the White House.
But Mrs. Dole, sitting by a roaring fire at a ski lodge here looking none the worse for wear after an afternoon on the slopes (with local TV cameras catching her careful, gentle turns down the mountain), would like to draw the distinctions.
"I think she's a bright person," Mrs. Dole says diplomatically when asked about Mrs. Clinton's controversial tenure as first lady. "She's very dedicated. I don't agree with her on many of the issues, and we have a different philosophy, but I think she's doing what she feels is right for America. I just have to leave it to each person to decide what it is that's best for her. For me, TC want to do it in a different way, which would be carrying out the humanitarian goals of the Red Cross."
It is this Southern politesse, combined with political savvy, that makes Mrs. Dole such a formidable campaign force.
"She personifies what women really want," says June Steele, a business consultant who heard Mrs. Dole speak at a GOP breakfast here. "Someone who can break through the glass ceiling, but retain her femininity.
"I admire Hillary's ability to speak," Ms. Steele goes on, "but I don't know why she had to be so gung-ho about everything."
Few women in the nation have been as gung-ho as Mrs. Dole, one of 24 trailblazing women in her Harvard Law School class of 550; a political appointee of five presidents; a former secretary of labor and secretary of transportation; a woman who for years was considered a possible candidate for vice president, or even president.
But she has not been in Washington for three decades for nothing. She knows just how far -- and when -- to push the envelope.
While she spoke enthusiastically during her husband's 1988 presidential bid of wanting to take on "a whole plateful of issues, as many as possible" as first lady, she now says she will pile up her plate at the Red Cross rather than the West Wing.
And while she seemed to enjoy the half-jokes back then of a "Dole/Dole" ticket -- and the murmurs that the wrong Dole was running -- these days, she squashes those sentiments flat as a flat tax.
"One politician in the family," half of the nation's No. 2 power couple politely insists, "is enough."
Slim, charming, decidedly stylish (she wears high-heeled suede boots to trudge through the New Hampshire snow and somehow keeps her hair and makeup political-spouse-perfect even while skiing), Mrs. Dole, 59, is the genuine Southern article, the steel magnolia of legend.
Greeting potential supporters after a speech, pumping maximum sincerity and cordiality into every "Thank you very much" or "It's a privilege to be with you today," you can almost see her at the debutante balls of her youth, or as the May Queen at Duke.
Some who know her say she is image-conscious almost to a fault; and she admits that a relentless, tormenting drive for perfection led her on a spiritual journey some years ago.
A familiar journey
But right now, her journey is a familiar one, one the seasoned, sophisticated campaigner made in 1976, when her husband was Gerald Ford's running mate, and in his 1980 and 1988 presidential runs.
As before, the senator's wife of 20 years (his second marriage; her first) is trying to acquaint the nation with the brave, young man who sacrificed for his country in World War II, fought back from life-threatening, paralyzing wounds and, through it all, has proved he has the character to lead.
These days, with inevitability that once surrounded Mr. Dole's nomination crumbling, her role as chief Dole emissary and salesman has become even more vital.
"She is the No. 1 teller of the Bob Dole story," says author Richard Ben Cramer, who has written extensively about the Doles. "It's a story he can't really tell. But he can accept it when she tells it. And crowds can accept it when she tells it. It's a huge campaign asset. Nobody else is of the standing to tell that personal story."
And nobody else does it as seamlessly. With a mike clipped to her suit, she ignores the podium and walks through the audience as she talks. "I like to be able to just eyeball ya'," she says with Clintonesque finesse, launching into a carefully scripted speech that seems utterly spontaneous.
She tells people about the "private" Bob Dole, the warm-hearted, benevolent man who took 35 "gang leaders from inner city Washington" to dinner two Thanksgivings ago and started the Dole Foundation that supports programs for the disabled.
She talks of his fine reputation among his colleagues, begging the audience to "excuse my language" when quoting from a Newsweek article in which a Senate aide describes him as "so damn good."
She speaks of her own dedication to serving others, and how "you'll get two President Doles" if her husband gets elected since she'll return to her $200,000-a-year job as president of the Red Cross, from which she is now on a one-year leave.
And then, though her whole speech underscores President Clinton's lack of military service and character problems, she finishes with her only overt reference to the man. "With your help -- and God willing -- we're going to send Bill Clinton back to Little Rock January 1997."
Which is about as rough and tumble as Mrs. Dole gets.
In an interview, the woman who started out in Washington as a Johnson Democrat, then became an independent and finally, after marriage to Bob Dole, a Republican, shuns anything the least bit controversial.
"Oh, I don't know. I really don't know."
She says she agrees with her husband's anti-abortion rights position.
Mrs. Clinton's policy role as first lady?
"I really don't know a better way to say it than that I think each person has to do it her own way, put her own imprimatur on it. That's about all I can say."
President Clinton's character?
"You know, I would rather just speak about my husband."
Marriage or merger?
She is blessed with a "beautiful marriage," she often says, although at times it looks more like a successful corporate merger.
They fax their schedules to each other in the morning. They check in by phone every night.
For their 20th anniversary last month -- with Mr. Dole in Washington and Mrs. Dole in Iowa -- they each ordered a dinner to be delivered to the other and talked on the phone as they ate. Earlier this month, when Mrs. Dole slipped on the ice while walking their dog, Leader (a schnauzer they "co-own" with a neighbor), her husband, campaigning in California, sent her yellow roses and a pepperoni pizza.
Not active in the Washington social scene, they spend their rare evenings together at home with carryout Chinese food and a video.
Given their abundant resources, they are not extravagant spenders. They live in a small, two-bedroom condo at the Watergate -- not even with a river view -- with a treadmill in front of the TV in the bedroom (they like "Murder, She Wrote" and the AMC channel), and more exercise equipment in the guest room.
Mrs. Dole drives an '86 Chevrolet Celebrity (a car her husband bought with crank windows that she had upgraded with power windows as a Christmas gift to him one year). And they have devised what they call "reverse birthdays" in which, on their birthdays, they give gifts to senior citizens and the needy instead of each other.
Religion is important, especially to Mrs. Dole, who has said that Christianity helped her grapple with the void she felt in her life when her career seemed to crowd everything else out.
"Gradually, over many years, I realized what was missing," she says at prayer breakfasts and other religious gatherings. "My life was threatened with spiritual starvation."
She joined a weekly prayer group at a Dupont Circle church as well as a Senate wives' Bible study group. She says she starts each day with 30 minutes of devotional time.
"It has put her professional life and her religious commitment in perspective," says Jenna Dorn, who met Mrs. Dole at the church group and has worked for her since 1980. "That's not always easy to do in a town like Washington."
And it has not always been easy for someone like Mrs. Dole, a self-described perfectionist who wrote, in a 1988 joint autobiography with her husband, that it has taken her years to see that such a drive for perfection "can be a sort of social tyranny."
Boss with a reputation
In fact, she has a reputation in Washington as a tough, demanding boss.
There have been numerous achievements up the ladder from federal trade commissioner, to public liaison chief at the Reagan White House and then Transportation Secretary, to Labor Secretary for President Bush and now Red Cross president.
Those who have worked for her say she surrounds herself with a small, protective group of senior staffers -- one colleague called them the "palace guard," another the "gatekeepers" -- and deals with few outside her inner circle.
"She mingled with the staff a lot less than other secretaries," says one Labor employee who noted that her door, even her outer door, was generally closed. "Imperial secretary may be too strong, but it was standoffish, aloof."
Others see it somewhat differently. Roy E. Clason Jr., a longtime colleague and friend who followed Mrs. Dole from Labor to the Red Cross, says his boss "surrounds herself with a senior-management team that feels as passionately about the mission as she does."
Indeed, she describes her work at the Red Cross as a "mission" and speaks with zeal about her efforts to ensure the safety of the nation's blood supply. Under her leadership, the organization has put in place a new $162 million state-of-the-art blood system that will centralize and streamline testing in the AIDS era.
She has been on the scene after disasters such as Hurricane Andrew, the Midwest floods and the Oklahoma bombing, and has visited war-torn Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia where she has held the hands of suffering children.
And she established a foundation for "at-risk youths" to which she has contributed more than $500,000 of her own money, much of it from the hundreds of thousands in speaking fees she's collected over the years.
Questions about her finances may be what she has most in common with the current embattled first lady, at least these days. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that, according to the Doles' tax returns, they kept about $148,000 of Mrs. Dole's speaking fees, although the senator claimed on his financial disclosure form that the money was donated. Mrs. Dole said this week that she will make sure all of the money she intended to give to charity, from the $875,000 she received in speaking fees between 1991 and 1994, was indeed donated.
In another matter, Mrs. Dole's former money manager, David Owen -- a former Dole aide and confidant who landed in federal prison for tax fraud -- spoke for the first time about his financial association with Mrs. Dole in a recent New Yorker article.
He said he had dealings with Mrs. Dole that pre-dated the blind-trust fund he managed for her, including one failed investment in which Mrs. Dole profited while other backers lost money.
Mrs. Dole has said she has no recollection of that particular deal and has disavowed any knowledge of her investments because they've mostly been in a blind trust. Her supporters say this is all old news -- that her finances, and relationship with Owen, were examined when her husband ran for president in 1988.
Which is true. But this is another time, a time when first ladies involved in questionable deals are hauled before federal grand juries.
Mrs. Dole, who is said to be a stickler about being prepared, may be readying herself for the kind of scrutiny today's political spouses -- whether they want to be "co-president" or not -- are subject to.
She, like Mrs. Clinton, has been reading up on Eleanor Roosevelt.