Dole against the odds Uphill struggle: Republican candidate faltering with just five weeks to go.


IS IT TIME to begin feeling sorry for Bob Dole? No matter what the Republican nominee does, he can't seem to narrow President Clinton's lead in the polls or connect with voters on the key issues he has fashioned: a 15 percent cut in income tax rates, an assault on a frightening rise in teen-age drug use and, lately, the charge that Mr. Clinton is a "closet liberal" pretending to be a conservative.

Mr. Dole's successes are mainly in negatives. He goaded the Democratic president into denying he was a liberal -- an assertion that must have party icons twirling in the graveyard. And he recovered nicely after falling from a speaking platform -- no Jerry Ford bumbler he.

By almost any measure, the Dole campaign is dead in the water. So how is rescue to come? GOP strategists are counting on the two presidential debates scheduled in October, this despite Mr. Dole's awkwardness in political repartee and the president's skills at smooth talk. Their other long-shot hope is that special counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation will somehow produce a blockbuster revelation against Mr. and Mrs. Clinton. Don't count on it.

As the skillfully managed Clinton re-election express rolls on, the Dole entourage has been beset with staff troubles, botched events, poor planning and bad luck. Any challenger has to make the pitch that things are not going well for America. But just since the national conventions, Mr. Clinton has been reveling in upbeat economic figures, a Federal Reserve decision not to raise short-term rates, a violence-free election in Bosnia and a switch in Republican strategy on Capitol Hill to stress accommodation with the White House rather than risk another government shutdown.

The latter development indicates that GOP lawmakers are eager to save their skins even if they deny Mr. Dole campaign issues he sorely needs. Health insurance, welfare reform, toughening of immigration laws, higher minimum wages, more money for education and other Clinton priorities -- all these became part of the record of the GOP-controlled Congress after Mr. Dole resigned as Senate majority leader. From Republicans, this is hardly a just reward for Mr. Dole's long years of service to his party.

American politics, like American baseball, always retains its ability to surprise. Ask Harry Truman. Ask Bill Clinton himself. But with just five weeks to go until election day, Senator Dole faces the sad prospect not only of defeat but of landslide. He needs to out-debate and out-hustle his opponent. Can he do it? Not likely.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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