GOP candidates keep Dole at a safe distance Congress members fret over Kansan's poor poll figures

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The Republicans' all-for-one, one-for-all campaign to elect Bob Dole president and return a GOP majority to Congress is being overcome by an every-man-for-himself mentality.

Dole and congressional Republicans, facing worrisome polls and formidable opponents, are running away from each other for fear of being dragged down together.


"It's very important to elect a Republican president, but it's more important to elect a Republican Congress," said Rep. Christopher Shays, a five-term Republican from Connecticut, reflecting the attitude of his colleagues.

On his third try for the White House, Dole puts his own race first.


"Something happens when you start getting close to an election: people feel their first priority is personal survival," said Sen. John McCain, who in the spring was among the most enthusiastic about turning the GOP-led Congress into a presidential election machine.

"House members, in particular, are very nervous. They have every reason to be," said McCain, an Arizona Republican close to Dole.

As a result of the 1994 election, the GOP gained control of Congress for the first time in four decades.

But polls suggest that the House majority, which dominated Washington politics for most of the past two years, has a 50-50 chance of being tossed out, according to political analyst Charles Cook.

Senate control looks more secure, but several GOP senators are considered in deep trouble.

Meanwhile, Dole is 15 to 20 percentage points behind President Clinton. So the soon-to-be GOP presidential nominee is busy fashioning a "Dole agenda" free of all mention of the "Contract with America," the 1994 campaign document of House Republicans.

Nor does he promote curbing the growth of Medicare and other controversial themes of the Republican "revolution."

The lawmakers are going their own way, too, with little concern about how their actions affect Dole's prospects.


"There's not a lot said about Dole," reported Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, a freshman Republican from Baltimore County. "We're just focused on re-election of our own members."

The most striking example of the turnabout came this week when the Senate overrode Dole's objections and joined the House in passing a welfare reform bill that President Clinton might sign.

That would give GOP lawmakers something to take home to voters but would rob Dole of a potent issue because Clinton also would be able to claim credit.

"The action speaks for itself," said Sen. Rick Santorum, a freshman Republican from Pennsylvania, who led the effort to reshape welfare in the Senate. "A lot of us ran on a promise of welfare reform. We shouldn't shirk that responsibility because of a presidential election."

Before Dole left the Senate, he insisted on linking the welfare bill with an overhaul of Medicaid, which Clinton vigorously opposes.

Dole's plan was to force Clinton to veto the combined measure, then attack him for failing to live up to his 1992 promise to "end welfare as we know it."


But 76 GOP House members, many of them facing uphill re-election bids, signed a letter to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott last month urging that the Medicaid section be dealt with separately. "We have worked too hard to bring about changes in the welfare program as a group and as individuals to risk its final passage," they wrote.

Dole ultimately endorsed the stand-alone welfare measure.

But after the House voted overwhelmingly last week to approve it, Dole let it be known that he believed his former colleagues had given Clinton a gift.

GOP lawmakers also have been critical of the way the Dole campaign is being run, mostly in private, but increasingly they are going public.

The highest-profile complaints have come from Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a New York Republican and an adviser to Dole.

D'Amato has criticized Dole on his handling of issues ranging from assault weapons to abortion.


D'Amato's comments are viewed by political analysts as a reflection of the New Yorker's own precarious political circumstances.

Facing re-election in two years, D'Amato's latest approval rating has reached an all-time low of 26 percent -- partly because of his intercession for Dole in the New York Republican primary and his chairmanship of the Senate Whitewater hearings.

"He may feel that he overreached on the political side of things," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. "The self-preservation instinct is very strong."

But public criticism is also a way of sending a message to Dole, Shays said.

After Dole declined to speak to the recent NAACP convention, Shays said he called the campaign "and raved like a lunatic. At this stage of the race, it's very hard to actually get through to the candidate."

It is not unusual for congressional candidates to distance themselves from their party's presidential nominee and vice versa.


In fact, the grand design for a coordinated Republican campaign this year, largely concocted by Gingrich, would have been the exception to common practice.

"There was never much chance that they could have put together the kind of structure some people envisioned," said David Mason, a congressional analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation. "But at least we haven't seen members of Congress leading a stampede against Dole, which sometimes happens."

Spokesmen for Dole and Gingrich predict that any looseness in the ranks will disappear after the Republican National Convention next month. Dole's tax cut proposal, which he plans to unveil before the convention, is expected to be a unifying theme.

Not for everyone, though. Deficit hawks like Mark Neumann, a House Republican freshman from Wisconsin, won't be supporting any proposal that adds red ink.

"He can talk about whatever he wants to," Neumann said of Dole. "I'm going to keep talking about balancing the budget."

Pub Date: 7/27/96