WASHINGTON -- Tired, disappointed and feeling beat up, Bob Dole took a brief respite from presidential politicking yesterday to return to the one comfortable setting where he's still indisputably No. 1: the U.S. Senate.
The majority leader called his half-day visit to the Capitol a tonic -- a quick restorative boost from longtime friends and admirers who bucked him up even as Arizona voters yesterday were delivering what Mr. Dole's supporters feared would be another defeat in a key primary race.
"I feel very comfortable here," Mr. Dole said yesterday, smiling and appearing relaxed before a meeting of his lieutenants in his stately office overlooking the Washington Mall. His Senate Republican colleagues, he noted with pride, gave him a standing ovation as he walked into their private luncheon yesterday.
Even Sen. Phil Gramm, once seen as Mr. Dole's major rival for the Republican nomination and now an also-ran, has buried his hatchet and endorsed Mr. Dole.
Out on the campaign trail, though, where Mr. Dole has struggled to convey a consistent message, he has been bludgeoned by Steve Forbes in TV ads and mocked by the populist rhetoric of Patrick J. Buchanan. Out there, the Republican leader is clearly getting no respect.
"Sometimes it feels that you're the punching bag," Mr. Dole said. "But I guess that's the role of the front-runner."
Whether Mr. Dole is still the front-runner is open to question. But he expressed confidence yesterday that he would emerge ultimately as the nominee. "It may take a bit longer than we planned," he acknowledged.
It's hardly a surprise that Mr. Dole would feel comfortable in the Senate, and that the senators should feel comfortable with him. A power broker and coalition-builder, Mr. Dole is adept at legislative craftsmanship.
But as a presidential candidate making his third bid for the Oval Office, Mr. Dole makes an easy target for those, like his rivals Mr. Buchanan, Mr. Forbes and Lamar Alexander, who blame the nation's problems on "Washington insiders" and call for a fresher approach in addressing America's anxieties about the future.
For example, while Mr. Dole spent much of the winter negotiating the details of balancing the budget, his opponents hammered away at clearer themes, like flat taxes and immigration curbs.
"I think job insecurity is an issue that needs to be addressed by all Republicans, not only Bob Dole," Sen. John McCain of Arizona said, though acknowledging that Mr. Dole has failed so far to inspire voters with his message.
The pressures on Mr. Dole were vividly illustrated yesterday. Mr. Dole's half-day in the Capitol was sandwiched between campaign stops in Georgia on Monday and South Carolina last evening. He was to return to Washington late last night to meet with House leaders this morning. He planned to return to South Carolina this afternoon.
He looks exhausted. Word in the Dole camp, though, was "no whining: stiff upper lip."
"He's a tough guy; he's been in tougher fights than this," said Mr. McCain.