WASHINGTON -- Bob Dole's time and patience appear to be running out.
"When will the voters start to focus?" the seemingly exasperated nominee thundered to a friendly crowd yesterday in Houston, where Dole is scrambling to hold on to a state normally rock-solid for Republicans. "Where's the outrage? Where's the outrage? I don't understand."
Dole has been working for months, trying every possible gambit to get America to recognize what he considers as plain as his Kansas roots: that he is a better man for the presidency than Bill Clinton.
But with 11 days left in the race and Dole still unable to crack Clinton's lead in the polls, that message doesn't seem to be getting through.
As Dole left for California last night in pursuit of the nation's most populous state, the odds for a sudden turn-around grew longer.
"It's the political equivalent of waiting for the Great Pumpkin," said John R. Pitney, associate professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College, in Claremont, Calif. "Every losing campaign is waiting for a miracle or hoping that the American people finally come to their senses."
Dole's moves to try to draw positive attention to his candidacy have become bold, scattershot and increasingly unpredictable.
The candidate gave up his beloved Senate seat, embraced a bold income-tax cut, awarded the second spot on his ticket to a popular but unpredictable former rival, and presided over a Republican convention marked by political sweetness and light.
None of this made a lasting dent in President Clinton's double-digit lead.
Even so, Dole continued to smile, joke and wisecrack through his first debate with Clinton early this month.
The former Senate majority leader, saddled with a reputation for making slashing attacks, was on his best statesman-like behavior. He felt so good about his debate performance that he was fairly glowing at a rally afterward. But the electorate remained unmoved.
From then on, Dole declared he would start getting "tough." He unleashed a blistering critique of what he terms ethical lapses by the Clinton administration: the firing of the White House travel office, the possible misuse of FBI files, the various Clinton officials under investigation, potential pardons for Whitewater defendants who might have incriminating information about the president.
"We have the president of the United States sitting down there with 900 FBI files. Might be one of yours, might be one of yours," the Republican nominee said yesterday at the rally in Houston.
"And then we have the president of the United States, who won't say he will not pardon somebody who did business with him and might implicate him later on. Where is the outrage in America?"
Dole has expanded his attacks on Clinton's integrity to new questions raised in the media about campaign contributions from foreign business interests.
He charged that Al Gore had set up a "laundromat" next to the "Vice President's House" to wash away the source of this money.
The nominee unveiled a proposal last Sunday for restricting campaign financing, then returned Monday and Tuesday to hawking his 15 percent tax-cut proposal.
On Wednesday -- the day after a new poll showed that his attacks on Clinton's ethics had cost him support among voters -- Dole made his most audacious stroke to date. He dispatched his campaign manager to try to persuade Ross Perot to drop his third-party candidacy and throw his 5 percentage points or so of support to Dole.
Perot, who is still angry with Dole for having insisted on Perot's exclusion from the debates, called the proposition "weird" and dismissed it.
"We were all scratching our heads over that one," Roger C. Davidson, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, said of the entreaty to Perot. "We couldn't figure out what he thought he had to gain."
But political candidates -- especially those as seasoned and as confident in their own abilities as Dole is -- often view the world through a rather different prism, campaign veterans say.
"When you're down in the polls, you keep thinking that it's just a matter of getting your message out, getting people to think about what you're saying," said Ronald C. Kaufman, who served as White House political director under President George Bush.
Bush, who appeared with Dole in Texas yesterday, can empathize with what his long-time colleague is going through.
In the closing days of his own loss to Clinton, in 1992, Bush sounded a little frustrated, as Dole does now. Bush also mocked his opponents with names like "bozo" and blamed the "liberal media" for his campaign woes.
In his latest salvo, Dole charged in Houston yesterday that the media were trying to "steal this election" by propping up the Clinton campaign.
"When do the American people rise up and say: 'Forget the media in America. We're going to make up our minds. You're not going to make up our minds,' " Dole shouted to the cheers and applause of his Texas supporters.
Those who devote much of their lives to seeking the presidency, as both Dole and Bush did, don't yield easily.
In fact, Dole aides speculate that he has only recently become alarmed about his prospects Nov. 5. "I think he always thought he was going to win," said a longtime Dole adviser. "He just can't believe that people want to re-elect Clinton, and he's frustrated that none of the stuff he's doing is getting anywhere."
The Dole campaign has reached the point where aides have begun blaming each other for its problems. And many congressional Republicans have abandoned Dole in a quest to save themselves.
Even so, running mate Jack Kemp, a former professional quarterback, promised yesterday in Palm Beach, Fla., that more surprise plays would be cooked up in the huddle. "We're going to throw a long, long ball," he predicted. "Not a Hail Mary, but we're going to go long."
Dole put it a little differently. "We're going to go out fighting," he said.
Pub Date: 10/26/96