He's at the border, he's at the prison, but what does Dole see for America?

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Everyone in politics understands that Bob (( Dole's problem as a presidential candidate is the reputation he has acquired, justifiably or not, as a dour, harsh and forbidding figure. Everyone, at least, except perhaps his political advisers.

Senator Dole's first foray into California as the Republican nominee-presumptive might have been planned by the Clinton-Gore re-election committee. The high point, if it could be called that, was Mr. Dole peering into death row at San Quentin state prison and then promising to put more inmates to death without all these endless delays. Imagine, 14 people were on death row so long they died of natural causes.


At the next photo op there was Mr. Dole at the border, gazing into Mexico at the delights of Tijuana and promising an even more "aggressive policy" against illegal immigration. And there he was declaring his support for the California Civil Rights Initiative that would forbid any affirmative action by the state related to race or gender.

The light, positive touch -- you should pardon the expression -- was evident only when he promised aerospace workers to build a bunch more B-2 Stealth bombers. President Clinton, said the Senate majority leader, has "undermined military readiness" by pledging to build only one more B-2, and even that one was an obvious attempt to pander to those same workers. The message there seemed to be that if you are going to pander, you might as well go the whole nine yards. Mr. Dole will build 19 more bombers, at a cost of $30 billion.


What was so striking about the whole trip to California was how much it exposed about Senator Dole's lack of understanding about, first, where he stands in the political world today and, second, what's involved in running for president.

If Mr. Dole were in some struggle to the political death with Phil Gramm or Pat Buchanan, there might be some reason in a mad rush to embrace every emotional right-wing cause for the benefit of the network camera crews. In fact, however, he has had the nomination effectively locked up for two weeks now, which would suggest he might want to broaden his appeal to American voters rather than simply re-establish his bona fides on issues such as the death penalty and illegal immigration.

Bent out of shape

Even more puzzling, in a different way, was his willingness to endorse the so-called civil-rights initiative on affirmative action, a measure that appears to promise a much harder line against race or gender preferences than the senator supported in the past -- meaning before this presidential campaign began to bend him out of shape.

The most significant problem for Mr. Dole suggested by the California campaigning -- and one not dissolved by still another touching scene in Russell, Kan., a day or two later -- is what it says about his understanding of how Americans choose a president.

It is true, as he apparently has surmised, that they want a leader willing to take clear positions on difficult issues. But no one who understands politics believes he will win or lose on whether he is tougher than Bill Clinton on such things as the death penalty, immigration reform and affirmative action. Instead, what voters want to know is as much as possible about the persona of Bob Dole and, beyond that, where he would like to take the country and what he would like to do in his four years in the White House.

It is, as George Bush complained, "the vision thing" that matters in presidential elections, not just some checklist of positions that win the approbation of the Christian Coalition and Phyllis Schlafly. Americans are clearly concerned about the nature and health of the economy and where they fit into things and they want a president who understands that concern.

There is an obvious precedent for Senator Dole to study. Ronald Reagan didn't defeat the last Democratic president because everyone agreed with him on every issue. He won because voters credited him with strongly held beliefs and trusted him to carry them out. A candidate doesn't build that kind of image getting his picture taken at San Quentin.


Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/27/96