WASHINGTON -- For Bob Dole, it may be now or never.
The presidential debates, starting tonight at 9 p.m., offer the Republican his best opportunity to seize the initiative in his challenge against President Clinton.
"These debates clearly have the potential to change the dynamic in this race more than any other events will," said John Buckley, communications director of the Dole campaign.
The first debate, in Hartford, Conn., "is not make-or-break" for Dole, insisted Buckley. But, he said, "It could well be the change-agent that solves what, right now, is looming as one of our biggest problems: the notion, widely afoot in the press, that the race is over."
With one month to go until Election Day, Dole has yet to generate a serious threat to Clinton's re-election chances.
Dole is trailing in many swing states he would have to win and is behind in such traditional Republican strongholds as Arizona and New Hampshire. Clinton, meanwhile, is leading in all of the Midwestern states that have historically decided close elections, as well as in the Democratic states of the Northeast and California.
Typically, a challenger benefits simply by sharing the stage with a president, by having his stature raised to the incumbent's. That will be particularly important for Dole, who is not yet viewed seriously as a potential president by many voters, Dole aides concede.
Recognizing that a candidate has often "won" or "lost" based on pre-debate impressions, Dole himself has joked that expectations for him are so low that he will win merely by showing up. His joke is also an implicit acknowledgment that he is considered less adept as a television performer than Clinton.
Last week, White House aides began trying to discount the prospect that Dole would come out ahead, noting that in four of the past five presidential campaigns, the candidate who trailed in polls moved up after the first debate.
"It's not enough for Dole to beat expectations," said George Stephanopoulos, a senior Clinton adviser. "He has got to fundamentally change the nature of the race. He has got to go for something like a knockout punch."
Clinton and Dole spent yesterday winding up their rehearsals for this evening's 90-minute encounter at Bushnell Memorial Theater.
The presidential entourage has been camped out at the historic Chautauqua Institution, a lakefront retreat in upstate New York. Dole and his advisers set up shop at his high-rise beachside condominium in south Florida.
Dole wrapped up his debate preparation by calling in the Republican who really knows what it's like to debate Clinton -- former President Bush, who debated Clinton four years ago.
Dole said he had pretty much finished his preparations. "You reach a point where you just stop. It's just like filling up your tank with gas. It only holds so much. I'm ready," he said.
In his radio address yesterday, Dole asked Americans to tune in to tonight's debate and gauge his differences with Clinton.
"It really boils down to a contest between the warmed-over liberal ideas of President Clinton and my common-sense conservative ideas that put the opportunities, safety and future of our children and families before government," Dole said.
Clinton spent most of the day holed up in his Victorian hotel or in a nearby auditorium for mock debate sessions. Hillary Rodham Clinton joined him last night and was to travel with the president to the Hartford, Conn., debate site this morning.
"I think it's a very important debate because if a lot of people watch it, it could affect their views," Clinton told reporters. "But I think the main thing for both of us is to go be ourselves and do the best we can."
Up to now, Dole has been blocked at every turn in his attempt to unseat Clinton. The former senator's 35 years as a Washington lawmaker have prevented him from campaigning as an outsider. And his critique of the president's record on pocketbook issues, especially Clinton's failure to deliver a promised middle-class tax cut, have been undercut by the public's general satisfaction with the economy.
At the same time, Dole has been hampered by his own lingering reputation for meanness, which has restrained him from assailing Clinton more aggressively.
It was Dole's performance as the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 1976 that helped establish his reputation as a partisan slasher.
In particular, he was widely criticized for his charge, in a TV debate, that "Democrat wars" in the 20th century were responsible for 1.6 million American deaths.
Dole is the "Darth Vader candidate," Stephanopoulos told a group of reporters last week, in an obvious attempt to rekindle those memories.
"He'll revert to form [in the debate]. He's going to come back and slash," Stephanopoulos said.
In a sign that Dole may, indeed, be ready to turn up the heat tonight, he unleashed one of his harshest speeches yet the other day. He assailed Clinton's foreign policy as "rudderless and illusionary," a "string of failures dressed up for television as victories."
The extent of Dole's preparation for the debate -- for the past 10 days he has sharply cut back his travel schedule and spent much of his time rehearsing -- is a tacit acknowledgment of its importance to his candidacy.
From both inside and outside the Dole organization, the veteran politician has been getting a wide range of advice on how best to handle himself before the largest audience he has ever faced.
Dole aides say the Republican will push the same line that he has been stressing in his campaign, through TV ads and speeches: that despite his move to the right over the past two years, Clinton is still a liberal at heart.
Republican leaders, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich and national GOP Chairman Haley Barbour, say Dole should focus more on issues, such as Dole's plans to lower taxes, balance the federal budget and reverse the rise in teen-age drug abuse.
Dole is also being advised to avoid sharp personal attacks on the president, and to deliver his criticism politely and with humor.
In addition, "Dole needs to focus on letting people know who he is personally," said Karl Rove, a top Republican strategist in Texas. "He has to overcome his reluctance to let people know more about him personally."
Dole aides agree that their man must connect "one-on-one" with tonight's TV audience.
Dole and Clinton will face each other alone onstage, except for the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS. An audience of 700 or 800 invited guests will be in the theater. The debate will be carried live on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, C-SPAN and MSNBC. How many voters will be watching is a question mark. Competition for viewer attention includes an NFL football game on the TNT cable channel.
Campaign officials are hoping for an audience greater than 70 million, but a nationwide poll last week indicated that far fewer Americans plan to watch this time than in recent elections.
Moreover, only 30 percent of the public said the debates would matter in deciding for whom they would vote, according to the survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Republican chairman Barbour, citing polls that show many voters have yet to focus on the campaign, termed the debate "the starting gun" for the presidential contest.
But two out of three registered voters say their minds are already made up, according to the Pew survey, which also found that four out of five Americans believe that Clinton will be re-elected.
Previous presidential debates have had little effect on the outcome of the election, according to a new study by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. It noted that the 1992 debates changed few voters' minds.
Even in debates where one candidate is thought to have won or lost decisively, the influence of the event on the campaign has been short-lived. In 1984, for example, Walter F. Mondale, the Democratic underdog, was widely seen as the victor in his first debate with President Ronald Reagan, whose rambling performance raised questions about whether, at 72, his age was finally showing. The debate gained Mondale "about 4 or 5 points" in the polls, "but it didn't last long," said Bob Beckel, his campaign manager that year.
Pub Date: 10/06/96