WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Almost 20 years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 1976 presidential election, Sen. Bob Dole began inviting political reporters to breakfast to make a single point -- that he had not been responsible as the vice-presidential nominee for President Gerald Ford's narrow defeat at the hands of Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Some post-election analyses had made Mr. Dole the scapegoat, particularly because of his poor performance in a debate with Walter F. Mondale in which he had described World War II as one of a series of "Democrat wars."
The real reason the Republican ticket lost, Mr. Dole argued vigorously, was that it did not work to win a larger share of the black vote. If President Ford had taken even 15 to 20 percent of the votes of blacks, as Mr. Dole himself had done in his Senate campaigns in Kansas, he would have been re-elected.
The analysis was accurate. Mr. Carter captured 90 percent or more of the black vote and it provided the decisive margin in several Southern states and Ohio. If the Republican share of that vote had been even close to 20 percent, the outcome might have been different.
That bit of political history is intriguing today in the wake of Senator Dole's bizarre decision to snub the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and his complaint that he was being "set up" for a cool reception.
The decision was a blunder. If Mr. Dole had been received well, he might have made it possible to win a larger minority of the black vote in November. If he had been treated rudely, an unlikely result at an NAACP meeting, he would have been credited by both black and white voters with facing up to a difficult situation.
The decision was also a missed opportunity. Astute Republicans recognize that broadening the base of the party by enlisting more black Americans should be a high-priority goal. Jack Kemp, the former housing secretary, has been urging it for years. And many younger Republican conservatives -- including Speaker Newt Gingrich -- recognize it as vital to hopes of establishing the Republican Party as a majority.
Senator Dole, moreover, has a record on civil-rights issues that -- would earn him a hearing from black voters even if they don't approve of his reservations on affirmative action.
Not only civil rights
Black voters are not guided solely by civil-rights questions. Crime, for example, is always a major concern in the black community, which is where a disproportionate number of victims as well as perpetrators live.
Nor is the political fallout from the Dole decision limited to the black electorate. Many white Americans, Republicans and independents as well as Democrats, feel strongly about civil rights and race relations in American society.
The snub reinforces a perception of the 72-year-old Republican as a harsh and combative partisan too closely wedded to the most conservative elements of his party. Not so. His whole history in 35 years in the House and Senate depicts him as a pragmatic politician more interested in accomplishing his agenda than in making ideological points -- and willing to work with those with whom he disagrees.
But most of the voters of 1996 don't know that history. They are being given their first introduction to Bob Dole.
The NAACP controversy is only one of several that, taken together, have projected the presumptive Republican nominee as a clumsy and uncertain campaigner. The same is obviously true of the continuing flap over whether he seriously believes smoking is addictive or is appeasing his contributors from the tobacco companies.
If there is a silver lining, it is that the campaign is still in its earliest stages in the eyes of voters. Professional politicians may wring their hands about Senator Dole's gaffes, but most voters won't pay much attention until the nominating conventions next month and the election campaign thereafter.
L But sooner or later, Bob Dole has to start getting it right.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 7/17/96