WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole got a second chance yesterday to show skeptics that he's not outclassed as a television-era presidential candidate by the man who holds the job he covets.
In a speech to the National Governors' Association -- just before President Clinton gave his own speech -- Mr. Dole demonstrated that he still has some kick left. Even White House officials, who watched Mr. Dole yesterday on C-SPAN, allowed that the nTC senator had acquitted himself well.
"I thought he was good," said Ginny Terzano, the deputy White House press secretary.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Dole gave the GOP response to Mr. Clinton's State of the Union address. It didn't turn out as he had hoped. Alone in his office, facing the camera awkwardly, the 72-year-old Kansas senator came across as "gloomy" or "sour" -- and those were Republican reviews.
One Republican presidential candidate, former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, immediately produced ads for Iowa and New Hampshire stating that he -- and not Mr. Dole -- was a Republican who could defeat Mr. Clinton in the fall. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Patrick J. Buchanan homed in on the same theme.
Yesterday, courtesy of the schedulers at the governors' association -- and with White House approval -- Mr. Dole was again selected to speak back-to-back with Mr. Clinton.
The setting was a natural one for him: an audience of officeholders and policy types for whom Mr. Dole's deal-making reputation is considered an asset. Still, knowing that he could lose them fast, Mr. Dole started out with a joke.
"I know you've had a couple of days of meetings and speeches," he told them, "so I thought I might liven things up by giving my State of the Union response again."
They laughed. He laughed, and the rest was a serviceable speech.
The gist of Mr. Dole's talk was that if the governors could agree on overall spending for Medicaid and welfare -- and how much coverage to guarantee -- Washington's lawmakers would almost certainly go along. In doing so, Mr. Dole said, the governors would make needed reforms, break gridlock in Washington and probably pave the way to a budget deal.
"If you give us welfare reform and Medicaid," he said, "you've gone a long way to getting this agreement back together, getting the president back together with the leaders of Congress."
Mr. Clinton, in his remarks, echoed the sentiment.
"You have contributed to the climate that will help us to balance the budget," Mr. Clinton told the governors. "You have contributed immeasurably to helping us to resolve the impasse over Medicaid. You have contributed to the impulse to move to genuine welfare reform. We can do all these things if we do them together."
After the two men spoke, the governors passed proposals calling for guarantees that the neediest Americans would receive help while also granting states leeway to tailor Medicaid and welfare to suit each individual state.
Comfortable in such a bipartisan environment, Mr. Dole had conciliatory words for Mr. Clinton.
"The biggest parlor game in Washington, besides trying to figure out who wrote 'Primary Colors,' is trying to decide whether or not President Clinton wants a real balanced budget agreement. I think he does. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm willing to take his word," he said.
Again and again, Mr. Dole used his wit. "We spent 50 hours together in different meetings," he said. "Most time I've ever spent at the White House. I hope to be there longer later."
When Mr. Clinton arrived a short time later, he picked up where the challenger had left off.
"I'd also like to express my appreciation to Senator Dole for what he said earlier here today, and the genuine spirit of cooperation," Mr. Clinton said. "I like him. I believe we will get a budget deal."
Reaction to the speeches broke down along predictable lines. Democrats thought Mr. Clinton was clearly better. Republicans didn't question Mr. Clinton's ability as an orator. Rather, they wondered whether his recent talk about the era of big government being over was sincere.
"Right up front, you could see he was focused with remarkable clarity on the issues before us," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
After hearing Mr. Clinton, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson of California was overheard asking a staffer whether she had ever heard such "bald-faced" distortions. "He told us he vetoed welfare because it didn't have child care," Mr. Wilson fumed. "There was $2 billion for child care in that bill."
White House advisers say that more money is needed to ensure that welfare mothers can go to school or fulfill work requirements demanded by both parties.
But Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa seemed to sum up the Republican reaction.
"I thought Senator Dole did well, and I expect he'll do well in Iowa next week," Mr. Branstad said. Asked about the president, he replied: "Clinton always speaks well. I just hope he means what he says."