THE REPUBLICAN Party can't be too content. Bob Dole has sewn up the GOP presidential nomination before April with a campaign that has since its beginning offered only a single invigorating idea put Colin Powell on the ticket.
Mr. Dole doesn't want a convention floor fight with mischief-maker Pat Buchanan, especially not over Mr. Powell, so one has to question how much the Kansas senator really wants the general.
Mr. Dole knows that so long as Mr. Powell keeps turning him down he won't have to fight Mr. Buchanan and other conservatives who don't like the general's lack of right-wing bona fides on abortion and affirmative action.
Without having to fight the Buchananites on the right and with a tip of his hat to the left, Mr. Dole can keep saying he wants a black running mate (if his name is Colin Powell).
This feinting left and running right is supposed to produce what pundits say will win this election the middle ground.
By suggesting Mr. Powell as his veep, Mr. Dole adds color to his assertion that the new Bob Dole is a progressive, not the crotchety old Cold Warrior who in 1988 flew off the handle every time he thought someone was lying about him.
Mr. Powell has twice said no to Mr. Dole, but he should leave open the remote possibility that he could change his mind. That might induce some of the Powell haters to also admit they think David Duke makes a lot of sense.
The GOP might as a result delouse itself of some racists, which is about the most African-American voters can expect from that party if Mr. Powell doesn't run.
Even with Mr. Powell on the ticket, unless he's in the top slot, the Republican platform is unlikely to appeal to most African-American voters, especially on affirmative action. That means most will still vote Democratic, even though Bill Clinton has moved to the right on that issue as well.
Mr. Dole would like more African-American votes, but he knows the last two Republican presidents won without them. His saying he wants to run with Mr. Powell is more about gaining that "middle ground."
To win any ground, though, the Republicans are going to have to do better than scream Whitewater. Most Americans, including a lot of Arkansans, couldn't care less about anything that happened in Arkansas in the 1980s.
Whitewater happened too long ago and is too complex for most people to want to understand, even if they could. They may be titillated by the innuendo about Hillary Clinton and the late Vincent Foster, but they will forgive Hillary, given what a cad she had for a husband back then.
And they will forgive Bill, as they did in 1992, because no one loves a sinner more than a fellow sinner and we, as a nation, long ago purchased the patent on sin.
During the primaries, Mr. Dole has simply offered himself as the person who has paid the most dues to face Bill Clinton. That's no longer going to be enough. People want to know what he can do to make their lives better.
The economy may be robust by Wall Street standards, but on Main Street and Elm Street and all the Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards and avenues in this country, people are hurting.
They may be making more money than ever before, but never seem to have enough left after paying bills. People literally get sick looking at the bite taxes take out of their paychecks.
Mr. Dole says he feels their pain, but his lack of ideas and inability so far to articulate their frustration say otherwise.
The winner of the 1996 election will be the candidate best able to express the exasperation of plain folks who are working harder ++ than ever and enjoying the results less.
Harold Jackson is a staff writer for The Sun.
Pub Date: 3/23/96