SAN DIEGO — SAN DIEGO -- Republicans gathering here for their convention are buoyed by the choice of Jack Kemp but still uneasy and in many cases pessimistic about what it will take for Bob Dole to beat President Clinton in the general election.
Conversations with several dozen party leaders, campaign strategists and rank-and-file delegates suggest that they are relying heavily on Dole's tax reduction and economic plan to attract middle-class voters.
But many are not yet persuaded Dole has the rhetorical tools to make the case.
"The first thing he has to do," said Becky Constantino, a delegate from Wyoming, "is make a hell of a speech Thursday."
"What he needs to do is develop some charisma," said Steve Stapinski, a Massachusetts delegate. "He has to make people love him. They don't now."
Party insiders with long experience are particularly skeptical. Asked what the candidate needed to do to overcome Clinton's lead in the opinion polls -- now running at between 10 and 24 percentage points -- David Keene, a one-time campaign manager for Dole, replied: "He has to be very lucky. Either that or we need a quick reversal on the economy."
"What does he have to do? Pray a lot," Richard McBride, a veteran consultant from Texas, said with a laugh, then added: "He has to close it up a little so he looks like there's more chance, and I think he'll get something out of this [convention]."
A Dole intimate who asked not to be identified put the Republican dilemma this way: "The tax thing has to be the theme of the campaign, but we don't know if it's believable with voters these days. Bob has to connect with people as a credible president, and he hasn't done that so far. That's why the speech is so important."
Another Dole adviser promised anonymity said: "When you say Dole, the voters come back with 'too old' and he has to overcome that by his performance, just like Reagan did in 1980. He starts with the speech, then he just keeps after it day after day until people stop thinking about how old he is and start listening to what he's saying."
Officeholders seem particularly convinced that the tax-economic case can be made despite the perception, apparent in one opinion poll after another, that the electorate sees the economy as clearly improved in Clinton's four years in the White House.
"He has to make two points that are very essential," said Gov. Fob James Jr. of Alabama. "One is taxes. For the American
people to work for five months to pay their taxes, that's tax oppression. So he has to contrast with the Clinton record on taxes and make a solemn commitment to cut taxes."
The second imperative, he said, is to show "that in the last 30 years it has become crystal clear that the federal government can't raise your children or educate your children. We have to focus on the things the federal government can do."
Rod Grams of Minnesota said the key for Dole is to concentrate on the tax plan and not be diverted to other issues. "He has to stay on message, that's the main thing, stay on message," he said. "It's a good strong message on taxes and it can win the election."
For many of the religious and cultural conservatives who are the dominant force at this convention, the tax issue is only one plank.
"If he focuses on the economic plan, that's going to be popular," said Tom McKay, a delegate from Alaska, "but he also has to show the dramatic differences with Clinton on the social issues."
There is some continuing concern within the party hierarchy about the continued prominence of the abortion rights debate that has developed from the controversy over whether Govs. Pete Wilson of California and William F. Weld of Massachusetts are being prevented from raising the issue in speeches from the podium.
The official line from Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour and House Speaker Newt Gingrich is that the press is fanning an abortion debate that otherwise would have died down by now. But privately many professionals here believe Dole mishandled the abortion plank debate by seeming to promise more than he could deliver.
"The Democrats aren't going to let us forget this one," said one.
Although unwilling to discuss the topic publicly, some party operatives with roles in the campaign are debating among themselves how far the ticket can go in exploiting reservations about Clinton's character. The risk they see is the possibility of reviving and reinforcing the reputation Dole once had as a slash-and-burn negative campaigner.
"Bob Dole has to be careful about this because people are ready to believe the worst about him," one campaign adviser said. "And Jack Kemp is no good at that kind of stuff. He only wants to talk about the economic stuff. So I guess we do it with ads and keep some distance."
Some professionals seem particularly pleased with the choice of Kemp for what they see that the decision says about Dole.
"We need more surprises, obviously," said Mitch Daniels, a former White House political aide now in business in Indiana. "He needs to convince people that he's a nicer guy than they think and that he's not too old and timid. This thing [Kemp] tells us he wants to win and that's important."
There is a clear consensus on the essential ingredients of a meaningful change in the dynamics of the campaign. With the vice presidential choice made and the platform issues settled for better or worse, Republican leaders now see the acceptance speech Thursday as critical. If Dole delivers a strong speech, the theory goes, he will come out of the convention with a 10-percentage-point to 12-percentage-point narrowing of the gap with Clinton. And that, in turn, might change the perception of the campaign.
"We need to change the story line," a veteran consultant said. "We've got to get the press off this business about Bob being a hopeless case and start seeing this thing as a real contest. That hasn't happened yet."
Pub Date: 8/12/96