Dole: Issues and strategy. Clinton/Perot threat: GOP convention still leaves Dole-Kemp ticket as underdog.; CAMPAIGN 1996


BOB DOLE'S first weekend as the official Republican nominee will take him to Colorado, the weakest of the GOP bastion states in the Rocky Mountains, and then on to Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania. If he is to have any chance of amassing the 270 Electoral College votes required to defeat President Clinton, he will need most of these swing states plus Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio and New Jersey.

The Dole strategy is to take the Mountain West, some of the Plains states, most of the South and a good chunk of the Rust Belt. California with its 54 votes looks almost hopeless for him and the Democrats are running strong in the Northeast and the Northwest. While his campaign will have the aura of a national appeal, in actuality it must be tightly targeted in terms of both time and money.

Convention hoopla is now history. The fierce intra-party struggle over abortion has been put aside till after November. All Republican efforts will henceforth be focused on what issues work in the states essential to overcome the double-digit Clinton lead in the polls. It will not be easy.

Even as Mr. Dole and running mate Jack Kemp take to the hustings this weekend, Mr. Clinton's 50th birthday bash will emphasize the age issue and Ross Perot will be crowned by his Reform Party. Both hurt. Mr. Perot splits the anti-incumbent vote. He joins Mr. Clinton in opposing Mr. Dole's tax cut plans, holding (correctly) that they contradict the Republican's lifetime commitment to deficit reduction.

It took Sen. Alfonse D'Amato's big lip to expose Mr. Dole's vulnerability on the centerpiece economic issue. During the San Diego convention, the New York Republican blurted to a radio talk show host that a 15 percent cut in tax rates would require higher Medicare payments by the affluent and lower Social Security and federal pension benefits -- adding that Mr. Dole "shouldn't say a word" about such financial castor oil until after the election. Mr. D'Amato later recanted, but the damage was done.

No Americans have more at stake in how Mr. Dole handles issues and strategy than Republicans in Congress. They know their majorities hang by a thread. As the campaign progresses, they will be deciding whether Mr. Dole has coattails or whether they want to distance themselves from him. Such decisions will, of course, impact the Dole campaign itself.

As the Dole-Kemp ticket begins its quest for the White House, it can take satisfaction in a well-managed convention that made the GOP's image more appealing and friendly. But that was just the first step in a long, uphill climb.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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