WASHINGTON -- In a bold try to restart his stalled presidential candidacy, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole delivered a shocker yesterday: He is resigning from the Congress "that I love" to devote full energy to the campaign.
Choking back tears as he abruptly ended a 35-year House and Senate career, Dole said the time had come to "leave Washington behind" and start running "in earnest" for the White House.
"I will then stand before you without office or authority, a private citizen, a Kansan, an American. Just a man," Dole told a room crammed with Republican congressional leaders and staff aides, many of them in tears.
Dole's decision, greeted with disbelief and shock by his Senate colleagues, is designed to shake up the presidential contest.
His move amounted to an acknowledgment that his initial strategy of using the Senate floor as a campaign platform to showcase his ideas, his maturity and his leadership had failed.
President Clinton, who leads Dole by up to 20 points in polls, was among those caught off-guard.
"You succeeded in surprising us all," Clinton told Dole in a brief phone call placed by the senator shortly after noon yesterday, according to the president's spokesman, Mike McCurry.
Clinton left the more partisan retorts to others, including Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, the general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who called Dole's decision to put distance between himself and Washington "an admission of failure" on the part of the Republican-led Congress.
News of Dole's resignation, to become effective June 11, was received with astonishment in Washington in large part because Dole's very existence appears to be defined by his role as a senator. It was as if Cal Ripken had decided to end his consecutive-game streak not by sitting out a game but by giving up baseball for good.
Need to get away
Dole campaign advisers have said that the unpopularity of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress are among the factors dragging Dole's poll numbers down. But a senior campaign official said the main reason Dole was quitting the Senate now was that he needs to get away from Washington and speak directly to voters about his vision for the future -- an admission that the 72-year-old Dole must do something truly unexpected to get voters to give him a fresh look if he is to close the gap with Clinton.
"We can't afford to have this time wasted," said the campaign official, who spoke on condition he not be identified. Leading Republicans have echoed this view, including national GOP Chairman Haley Barbour, who said recently that Dole must cut Clinton's lead in half between now and the GOP convention in August.
Sauerbrey cheers decision
Around the country, Republican officials cheered Dole's surprise decision. Typical was the response of Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a Republican national committeewoman from Maryland, who called it "a great move" and said her party's likely nominee had been transformed instantly into "a very different Bob Dole. It distances him from the compromising atmosphere in the Senate."
But even inside the Dole campaign, there were murmurs of dissent, particularly from those who had been excluded from the small circle of advisers that had discussed with Dole the pros and cons of resigning from the Senate.
Critics inside the Dole campaign fear that by taking him from one extreme to the other -- from minute-by-minute management of the legislative affairs of the Senate one day to resignation the next -- Dole's move would be seen by voters as a desperate ploy. Democrats were quick to make that charge yesterday.
For weeks, Dole has been under intense pressure from campaign advisers and party leaders to relinquish his Senate leadership duties, especially as Democrats became more successful in blocking some legislative initiatives, such as his effort to roll back a 4.3-cent federal gasoline tax. The fear was that Dole was getting trapped in an image that his campaign dreaded: that of Dole presiding over gridlock on Capitol Hill.
Considered for weeks
Dole aides insisted that the decision had not been made out of desperation. Instead, they said, it was under consideration for weeks, since early April, when the senator retreated to his beachfront condominium in South Florida for a rest after wrapping up the nomination.
On Tuesday, Dole told Republican governors that he would soon begin spending more of his time on the campaign. Yesterday, it was widely reported that he had finally decided to turn over his day-to-day leadership chores to other Republican senators and would announce his decision at a news conference that afternoon.
But no one beyond a handful of senior advisers -- not even other Republican senators -- was let in on the bombshell Dole chose to drop instead. A campaign official said they wanted to preserve ++ the element of surprise and that Dole made his decision days ago. Others suggested that the real reason was that Dole was wavering and did not finally decide to quit until yesterday morning.
Colleagues were surprised
Barbour, the party chairman, said Dole informed him of his decision in early May. But none of his Republican colleagues, whom Dole normally consults with closely, was informed until yesterday. Mr. Gingrich, who meets regularly with Dole, was also taken by surprise.
One top campaign official said the idea of quitting gathered steam only in the past few days. And a longtime Dole adviser, Washington lobbyist Tom Korologos, said yesterday that it "jelled this morning."
There was agreement that the idea of resigning was pushed most strongly by Scott Reed, Dole's 36-year-old campaign manager. Dole's wife, Elizabeth, was also said to be solidly in favor.
With his Senate platform gone, Dole will now be under pressure to show strength as a campaigner.
It has been clear in recent weeks that he is far more comfortable presiding on the Senate floor than out politicking on the campaign trail. His idea of relaxing at night is to watch reruns of C-SPAN -- the cable channel that covers the proceedings of Congress and American politics in detail.
In his 6 1/2 -minute farewell speech, Dole acknowledged that "some might find this [decision] surprising, given the view that Congress has been my life."
'America has been my life'
"But that is not so," added the senator, who has spent nearly half his 72 years on Capitol Hill. "With all due respect to Congress, America has been my life. And the very least a presidential candidate owes America is his full attention, everything he can give, everything he has -- and that is what America shall receive from me."
Dole thanked his Republican colleagues for electing him as their leader six times -- a record.
He made no mention of the voters of Kansas, who first sent him to Washington in the waning days of the Eisenhower presidency, and who kept him there since.
By design, his remarks were, in effect, a re-announcement speech, stressing the depth of his commitment to become president, not just the Republican nominee.
As in his first announcement speech last year in Kansas, he read off a TelePrompTer, a device he seldom uses and with which he did not appear fully comfortable.
"I will seek the presidency with nothing to fall back on but the judgment of the people of the United States," Dole said, "and nowhere to go but the White House or home."
He used the speech to touch on basic themes of his candidacy and his desire to become president -- a message he intends to repeat today at a hastily arranged campaign event at a downtown Chicago hotel.
Confident he'll catch up
Conceding that "we have a hard task ahead," Dole began his drive to "reconstitute our momentum" and catch Clinton in the polls by taking a shot at the news media, which he said is biased against him. He expressed "absolute confidence" in his ability to overtake Clinton.
No longer tied to the Senate schedule, which forced him to limit campaigning largely to weekends, Dole will be on the road three or four days a week, aides said.
Dole has expended most of the funds he is permitted to spend. His campaign forays will be heavily subsidized out of national and state Republican coffers.
One big hurdle
One big hurdle Dole must overcome is the public's perception of him as a typical Washington politician. Not even Dole's move to quit the Senate, a senior Dole aide conceded, can suddenly wipe away that picture.
"You can't take somebody who has been in the Senate for 35 years and pretend he was never a senator," the aide said.
But, he added, "you're going to see him out of a suit and tie. You'll see him in environments that do not bespeak the carpeting and the background of the Senate."
This weekend, Dole plans to stop by a Winston Cup stock car race in North Carolina.
More broadly, Dole intends to use his stepped-up campaign schedule over the next few months to sharpen his attacks on Clinton and begin defining himself to voters.
Polling conducted for the Dole campaign has revealed that most Americans aren't familiar with details of the candidate's life, his upbringing in the Depression and his heroic battle to overcome a near-fatal wounding in World War II, which left him with a disabled right arm.
"I will be," he said yesterday, "the same man [who] rose from my hospital bed and was permitted, by the grace of God, to walk again in the world.
"I trust in the hard way, for little has come to me except in the hard way."
Pub Date: 5/16/96