SAN DIEGO -- Making his case that he is a better man than Bill Clinton to lead America, Bob Dole pledged last night to lead a tax-cutting administration that would be "able, honest and trusts in you."
Dole's speech, accepting the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, posed a generational challenge from a disabled World War II veteran to the first baby boomer to sit in the White House.
"Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquillity, faith and confidence in action," he said.
"To those who say it was never so, that America has not been better, I say, you're wrong and I know, because I was there. I have seen it. I remember."
The 56-minute address was a bold departure from political custom by a seasoned candidate who starts out back in the polls. In a high-stakes gamble, Dole chose to highlight his own political liabilities, including his age, in an effort to turn them to his advantage.
There were no surprises or new policy initiatives in the address, which was received enthusiastically by the partisan crowd inside the San Diego Convention Center.
Instead, Dole used his hour in the national media spotlight to introduce himself to the voters.
"What a night!" he exclaimed, as he strode to the podium and looked out over a sea of delegates waving American flags and "Dole-Kemp '96" pennants.
At 73, Dole would be the oldest man to become president. Last night, he focused attention on his age, one of the few things that most voters know about him.
"I know that in some quarters, I may be expected to run from the truth of this, but I was born in 1923," he said. "Good presidents and good candidates don't run from the truth."
He also took aim at critics who say he has a mean streak and is too interested in striking compromises.
"If I am combative, it is for love of country," he said. "And to those who believe that I live and breathe compromise, I say that in politics honorable compromise is no sin, it is what protects us from absolutism and intolerance."
Calling Bill Clinton "my opponent, not my enemy," Dole launched a verbal assault on the incumbent president, describing him as selfish and dishonest.
"For too long, we have had a leadership that has been unwilling to risk the truth, to speak without calculation, to sacrifice itself," he said.
"It is demeaning to the nation that within the Clinton administration a corps of the elite who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered and never learned should have the power to fund with your earnings their dubious and self-serving schemes."
Dole took a swipe, as well, at Hillary Rodham Clinton. Without mentioning her by name, he ridiculed her child-rearing book, titled "It Takes A Village."
"I am here to tell you, it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child," Dole said to roars from the convention floor.
The speech, which brought the four-day convention here to an upbeat close, had been eagerly awaited by Republicans. Except for any debates that take place this fall, it was Dole's best chance to deliver an unfiltered message to the voters.
"This is the closest he's come to providing the vision that I've been looking for," Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa said. "People needed to hear it from him. I think they will respond to it."
Former House Republican Leader Bob Michel of Illinois was somewhat less euphoric.
"This is the best speech I've heard him give in a long, long time," said Michel, who went on to say that Republicans "were prepared that it wouldn't be the most eloquent speech. But that's not the most important thing. What's important is content, his sincerity and his personal story."
Dole wove themes of moral values into his presentation, which included details of his campaign agenda. Its centerpiece is a proposed 15 percent across-the-board income-tax cut.
Implicit throughout was the contrast of character between Dole and Clinton that Republican strategists see as perhaps their best issue this fall.
Talking tough, while smiling at the same time, the Kansan offered himself as an antidote to an opponent he characterized as endlessly calculating and mainly interested in soaking taxpayers to pay for government spending programs.
Dole returned repeatedly to his own experiences, offering bits and pieces of his inspiring life story, including a near-fatal battlefield wounding in Italy in 1945 and a grueling recovery that left him with a useless right arm.
"There was once a time when I doubted the future," he said. "But I learned that obstacles can be overcome, and I have unlimited confidence in the wisdom of our people and future of our country.
"Tonight, I stand before you tested by adversity, made sensitive by hardship, a fighter by principle and the most optimistic man in America."
On the most important night of his political life, Dole surrendered his legendary reserve. He spoke movingly of his small town roots and of his late parents. At one point, his voice grew thick with emotion as he recalled his father's arduous journey to visit him in a Michigan rehabilitation center in 1947.
"My father was poor," Dole said, his voice faltering. "And I loved my father."
Dole attacked repeatedly across the generational gulf that divides him and his 61-year-old running mate, Jack Kemp, from Clinton and Al Gore, the first baby boomer president and vice president.
He spoke harshly of young men and women who fail "to serve when called," a clear reference to Clinton's avoidance of the military draft during Vietnam.
Dole also deplored "the casual and arrogant treatment" that U.S. soldiers suffered during Vietnam, and, in one of his strongest applause lines, assured the convention audience that "when I am president, every man and every woman in our armed forces will know the president is his commander in chief, not Boutros
Boutros Ghali, or any other U.N. secretary-general."
At a time when the economy is growing and pocketbook issues appear to favor the president, Dole assailed Clinton's 1992 campaign for its emphasis on the economy, which he called a grave insult to the nation. "Which is more important, wealth or honor?" Dole said. "It is not," as Clinton said in 1992, "the economy, stupid. It's the kind of nation we are. All things do not flow from wealth or poverty. All things flow from doing what is right."
Dole, who has supported Clinton's policy in Bosnia, criticized the president's overall foreign policy record.
Clinton, he said, "has failed to adequately provide for our future defense. For whatever reason, his neglect is irresponsible."
Dole called for more spending for anti-missile defenses and promised to "rebuild our armed forces" on his first day in office.
Under a Dole presidency, he said, the United States would pursue terrorists "to the ends of the Earth. In short, don't mess with us unless you are prepared to suffer the consequences."
He also delivered a message of inclusion to his party, which has sought to reverse the image of intolerance generated by the 1992 GOP convention in Houston.
"If there is anyone who has mistakenly attached himself to the party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion, then let me remind you: Tonight, this hall belongs to the party of Lincoln. And the exits, which are clearly marked, are for you to walk out of as I stand here and hold this ground, without compromise," said Dole, who served as Republican national chairman from 1971 to 1973.
He received one of the loudest roars of the night when he said that while he opposes illegal immigration, "a family from Mexico who arrived this morning, legally, has as much right to the American dream as the direct descendants of the Founding Fathers."
At the same time, Dole spoke out against racial preferences and dTC affirmative action. He said there would be "no claim to favoritism by race" under his administration, calling that a "guiding light" of his presidency.
After his speech, Dole was joined on the podium by members of his family, while red, white and blue balloons dropped from the ceiling of the convention hall onto the exuberant delegates. Later, all of his defeated rivals, including Patrick J. Buchanan, arrived onstage in a tableau of party unity as a blizzard of confetti was released.
Dole and Kemp then walked down onto the convention floor, shaking hands with delegates in the near-empty hall for more than 45 minutes. In a further effort to tell his story to the country, Dole was introduced by a biographical video, modeled on a similar film about Clinton that was shown to the 1992 Democratic convention.
"I hope I'm a better man for a better America," he said at the conclusion of the film, delivering his campaign slogan.
He was preceded by Kemp, who gave a 25-minute acceptance speech. The former housing secretary said he was "putting our opponents on notice. We are asking for the support of every single American. Our appeal of boundless opportunity crosses every barrier of geography, race and belief."
Even before the convention ended, Texas Gov. George W. Bush declared it "a roaring success." National polls showed that Dole has gained several points on Clinton over the past week, but still trails him by double-digit margins.
Pub Date: 8/16/96