SAN DIEGO -- With the polish of a talk-show host, the charm of a Southern hostess -- and the conviction of the devoted wife she is -- Elizabeth Dole told the Bob Dole story last night.
And nobody does it better.
In an unconventional format that resembled a daytime television talk show, the wife of the Republican nominee-to-be walked down from the podium and waltzed through the floor of the convention hall, trying to acquaint the audience with the softer, human, heroic side of "the man I love" -- a side the candidate himself is uncomfortable conveying.
"He is my own personal Rock of Gibraltar," Mrs. Dole said.
Trading in a wireless microphone clipped to her canary yellow suit for a hand-held mike after technical difficulties marred the beginning of her speech, Mrs. Dole, 60, called her husband "the strongest, most compassionate, tender person I've ever known" and relayed personal anecdotes illustrating those traits.
Her 20-minute speech, by far the longest of the night, followed a five-minute speech by Robin Dole, the candidate's 41-year-old daughter from his previous marriage. Both were designed to paint a picture of, as campaign aides said, "Bob Dole, the man," for millions of Americans who know Dole only as the veteran Washington lawmaker.
Mrs. Dole talked of her husband's generosity -- taking dozens of underprivileged children in Washington out for a Thanksgiving dinner, for instance, and celebrating his birthday by giving gifts to a shelter -- and noted that the employees of the Senate twice voted him the "nicest, friendliest of all 100 senators."
"I could go on and on sharing stories about this loving husband and father, this caring friend," she said.
In a heartfelt presentation, enthusiastically received by the previously buzzing audience that fell silent for the first time during last night's proceedings, she introduced people who had played a role in her husband's life and occasionally shook hands with friends in the audience, including New Mexico Sen. Pete V. Domenici.
Dole's wife of 20 years spoke of the former senator's Kansas roots. And she highlighted his triumph over the disabling war wounds he sustained in World War II -- something the Dole camp has been stressing in this campaign -- saying he is a man who knows "pain and suffering."
Among those flown in by the Dole campaign and introduced by Mrs. Dole last night were the wife and daughter of Dr. Hampar Kelikian, the physician, now deceased, who treated Dole during his hospitalization and long recovery, and Pat Lynch, the nurse who worked with Dole for 27 months and helped him regain his strength.
Also introduced by Mrs. Dole was Tim Steininger, a disabled man from Dodge City, Kan., who inspired Bob Dole to set up his foundation for the disabled, and Trudy Parker, a Capitol Hill police officer who was posted outside Dole's Senate office for 18 years and who wept on Dole's last day in the Senate.
"They know he's honest, trustworthy, a man of his word. His word is his bond, and they know he has exceptional leadership skills," Mrs. Dole said of her husband's Senate colleagues, rousing the crowd. "Isn't that exactly what we want in a president of the United States?"
Although not unheard of, wives of nominees do not routinely address presidential conventions. Barbara Bush spoke to the 1992 Republican convention in Houston, but Hillary Rodham Clinton did not speak to the Democratic convention that year.
Mrs. Dole is considered a supremely effective campaigner, far more eloquent and telegenic, in fact, than her husband.
Mrs. Dole's performance last night echoed her seamless appearances on the campaign trail. There, in similar fashion, she shuns the podium and wanders through the audiences talking of Bob Dole, as her aides say, "from the heart."
"It's very effective," said one of Mrs. Dole's aides. "It mesmerizes audiences. And she enjoys the intimacy, the ability to shake hands and hug friends she sees."
Until last night, Mrs. Dole, a Cabinet member in the Reagan and Bush administrations, has kept a fairly low profile this week, sticking to traditional first-lady-type events belying her powerhouse of a political resume. More pointedly, those events are designed to prove that she is no policy-making Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Yesterday, for instance, she visited terminally ill children at the San Diego Children's Hospital with costumed characters from Sea World.
On Tuesday, at an event called "Conversations with Elizabeth Dole," she and Robin Dole spoke with three San Diego women who had overcome hardships or made contributions in their communities.
As in Dole's two previous bids for the presidency, the North Carolina-born Mrs. Dole, on sabbatical from her job as president of the American Red Cross, has put her own stellar career on hold and has shifted easily into supportive campaign spouse mode.
Mrs. Dole, who has served five presidents and who graduated from Harvard Law School at a time when women were scarce there, possesses keen political instincts and is known as a shrewd strategist.
But those assets are not highlighted on the campaign trail; in fact, they are almost completely submerged by a personable public persona that has made her a hit with Dole audiences.
Mrs. Dole's steeliness, however, has occasionally peeked through the celebrated Southern charm. Still angry over an interview she and her husband did on NBC's "Today" show -- in which Katie Couric pressed Dole about his reliance on tobacco money -- Mrs. Dole refused to be interviewed on the top-rated morning show as she made the rounds of the network chat shows this week.
In a joint interview last month on CNN's "Larry King Live," she seemed to be calling the shots, keeping her husband from stumbling into minefields.
Recently, Dole has been alluding to his wife's smarts -- with a punch line that is more a jab at Mrs. Clinton, and the revelation that she engaged in therapeutic conversations with an imaginary Eleanor Roosevelt, than a compliment to his wife.
"Elizabeth is so talented that Eleanor Roosevelt is trying to reach her," Dole says, generally eliciting thunderous applause and BTC laughter.
Pub Date: 8/15/96