The final indignity -- a drive to win Dole's Kansas for Clinton

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TOPEKA, Kan. -- In a one-room office leased from a law firm in the Jayhawk Building here, a couple of young eager beavers operating on a $15,000 budget are busy plotting the final indignity to Bob Dole -- his defeat in his own home state of Kansas on November 5.

It probably won't happen, but they're persevering with the hope of a pair of two-dollar bettors plunking their deuces down on a 100-to-1 shot. Troy Findley, 32, and Joe Wagner, 27, have been laboring from their cubbyhole since early September on what surely seems to be a fool's errand.

But the very fact that they're here symbolizes the strategy of the Bill Clinton campaign around the country to go after Senator Dole's Republican base, keeping him pinned down defending what should be his safe turf when he needs to go after Mr. Clinton's.

Here in Kansas, that strategy hasn't really worked. Mr. Dole has all but ignored his home state, except for photo-opportunity visits to his hometown of Russell and one recent pep rally for Republican candidates in Wichita. The Dole campaign presence consists of a desk at the Republican State Committee headquarters in Topeka.

Across the state, there are no billboards, no radio or television ads and only occasional bumper stickers informing Kansans that a presidential election involving their most famous citizen is going on. A Mason-Dixon poll for the Kansas City Star and the Lawrence World-Journal last month had Mr. Dole comfortably ahead, 51 percent to 39. But the Clinton campaign guerrillas here look for whatever slim signs of hope they can find.

One is an internal Democratic poll that has the race at Dole 45, Clinton 40. Another is the very fact that Senator Dole went to Wichita for the party-unity meeting. "It seemed kind of odd that ,, he'd come at all," Mr. Wagner says. And, he notes pointedly, Kansas' Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, who is retiring after this year, did not attend. She has conspicuously endorsed Mr. Dole in his presidential quest, but that doesn't prevent Mr. Wagner from reading something into that absence.

When you're fighting a guerrilla action, you have to take encouragement wherever you can get it. Mr. Wagner also finds it in a split in the Republican party between the relatively moderate Gov. Bill Graves and the dominant conservative wing represented by state GOP chairman David Miller.

Row at the convention

The two had a row at the party's national convention when Mr. Miller reportedly tried to prevent Governor Graves from casting the Kansas delegation's vote in the formal roll-call for Mr. Dole. Also, Governor Graves backed the moderate Kansan he appointed to succeed Senator Dole until this fall's election, Sheila Frahm, but she lost to conservative Rep. Sam Brownback, Mr. Miller's unspoken preference, in the Republican senatorial primary.

Another reed on which the tiny Clinton team here leans is the fact that in 1992, Ross Perot won 27 percent of the vote in Kansas and his support here has dwindled. Mr. Wagner says that old Perot people blame Senator Dole for keeping Mr. Perot out of this year's presidential debates (which he did). Mr. Wagner hopes they will be working to defeat him on election day.

Also being played up is a statement from Dr. William Roy, the Democrat the senator narrowly defeated for re-election 22 years ago in a particularly bitter and negative campaign, when Mr. Dole labeled Dr. Roy, an obstetrician, an abortionist.

"Bob Dole is up to his old tricks again," the doctor said. "I have seen it before first-hand. I was the recipient of Dole's negative campaign tactics in 1974. . . . Today, replace the name Roy with Clinton."

Few Kansas voters, however, are likely to remember that campaign, or punish Senator Dole for it now. With Republicans holding a 43 to 29 percent registration lead over Democrats in the state, he remains a political icon here. Political newsletter author Martin Hawver says: "He could carpet-bomb the state and we'd still vote for him. He's our equal-opportunity fixer."

From all this, it's clear the young Clintonites are tilting at a big windmill in Kansas. But, they will tell you, you never know.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 10/25/96

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