ST. LOUIS -- For the first time in three tries, Bob Dole yesterday entered the final stretch of a presidential quest, refusing to let the formidable odds against him dampen his high spirits.
"Welcome to the retirement party for Bill Clinton," the Republican nominee told nearly 10,000 supporters gathered under the Gateway Arch.
Framed by the St. Louis skyline in this predominantly Republican state, Dole promised to be "a gateway to a bright and shining future for the American people."
No one starting the two-month sprint between Labor Day and Election Day this far behind -- more than 20 points in some polls -- has ever been able to win the White House. No one as old as the 73-year-old former Senate majority leader has gotten this far in challenging an incumbent.
But after failed bids for the GOP nomination in 1980 and 1988, and an unsuccessful race for vice president with President Gerald R. Ford in 1976, Dole acts like a man who figures he's ahead of the game.
"My opponent says he wants to be a bridge to the future," Dole said, referring to the key theme of Clinton's nomination acceptance speech. "That's what we're afraid of -- because he would be a bridge to higher taxes, more teen-agers using drugs, a government-run health care system, more liberal judges, America defenseless against incoming ballistic missiles, an economy producing too few jobs -- and on and on with more government in our lives."
Clinton had used a line from Dole's acceptance speech that made it appear the Republican wanted to be a bridge to the past. So, Dole was determined to put a new spin on the line.
"He's going to be a bridge to the future, all right, a toll bridge: You pay and pay and pay," Dole said.
The Republican nominee made a thinly veiled reference to the character issue, an area in which his aides believe Clinton may have become more vulnerable after the resignation last week of a top adviser alleged to have shared White House secrets with a prostitute.
Dole urged voters "to take the time to review" each candidate's record, determine who "tells the truth," "says what he means" and "does he keep his word?"
"Bob Dole is honest; his word is good; when he makes a commitment you can take it to the bank," said Dole, who promised "leadership you can count on every hour of every day."
Now that both parties have completed their national conventions, Clinton's lead is firmly back into double digits, after a week or so when Dole appeared to have narrowed the margin to less than 10 percentage points.
A CNN-USA Today poll released yesterday has Clinton ahead of Dole by 21 percentage points -- 55 percent to 34 percent, with 6 percent for Reform Party candidate Ross Perot. But Dole dismisses polls at this point as meaningless because he says the contest has just begun.
"He's happy to be finally funded, [to] have a level playing field," Dole's press secretary, Nelson Warfield, said in reference to the $74 million infusion of public money and Republican Party cash that flowed into Dole's campaign chest after his nomination last month.
After months of being cash-strapped, the campaign has begun a nonstop blitz of TV ads.
GOP strategists contend that Dole's boost in the polls after his convention shows that when he gets an equal chance at center stage, the race tightens.
At this gateway city to the West, Dole bid a ceremonial farewell yesterday to running mate Jack Kemp, who set off on a separate campaign swing to Michigan.
Part of Kemp's mission is to give greater credibility to Dole's call for tax cuts while balancing the budget -- a promise the Democrats have said is impossible to keep without savaging popular federal programs.
"I want to set the record straight," Kemp told the St. Louis crowd. "They say it can't be done only because they can't do it."
Kemp has begun a new tactic, adopted by Dole, of asking audience members to raise their hands if they got a tax cut from Clinton, who promised middle-class tax relief in his 1992 campaign to unseat George Bush. Invariably the crowd hoots because Clinton wound up raising taxes instead.
Dole supporters in St. Louis said they thought that message was a winner.
"What he says about taxes is right," said Tom Voigt, 52, of Collinsville, Ill. "I am paying at the rate of 38 percent, and I work in a factory. We're being taxed to death."
Dole's four-day campaign swing also took him to Salt Lake City, where today he will address the American Legion convention. He plans a series of rallies from Colorado to Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio before returning to Washington on Thursday.
Dole plans to pound away at a handful of major themes: his economic plan, featuring a 15 percent tax cut; drug abuse, which he says Clinton has allowed to increase; and his claim that Clinton appoints liberal judges -- a practice Dole promises to end.
Kemp, meanwhile, will take the lead on reaching out to Democrats, independents, even moderate Republicans who may be uneasy with Dole's conservatism.
Dole's Labor Day kickoff in Missouri would not be complete without a reference to Harry S. Truman, with whom every presidential underdog likes to claim kinship regardless of party because of the 33rd president's come-from-behind victory in 1948 over Republican Thomas Dewey.
"Like Truman, I'm going to win a come-from-behind victory you just wait and see," Dole said, as the crowd chanted: "We want Dole! We want Dole!"
"You're going to get him," the candidate responded.
Pub Date: 9/03/96