Dole hears the pleas of partisans, but to little apparent effect

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- When Bob Dole came here the other day to one of the nation's traditionally Republican strongholds, he offered a formula for the election victory that all the polls suggest will be beyond his reach: "I'd be willing to settle for 68 percent of the vote in Orange County."

He probably needs that much in Orange County to have much hope of carrying California, given President Clinton's latest 17-point lead in the Los Angeles Times poll. Without California's 54 electoral votes, the largest state bloc and 20 percent of what's needed to win the election, his candidacy would appear doomed.

Mr. Dole's appeal for a lopsided vote here underscored the desperation of his cause as he continues to work to secure his conservative Republican base here and elsewhere. He needs California so badly now that after four straight days in the state this week, he plans to return on the campaign's final weekend. He also has running mate Jack Kemp working diligently here.

Meanwhile, President Clinton spends these closing campaign days making incursions into this and similar GOP strongholds in other states like Florida in an effort to take them away from Senator Dole, or at least force him to spend resources there.

Although Mr. Dole and his aides continue to insist that winning the presidency is the aim in focusing on California, speculation remains that a more realistic objective is to salvage some congressional districts now seen to be in peril -- and, possibly, GOP control of the House and the speakership of Newt Gingrich.

In the long-shot strategy of attempting to maximize the conservative base not only in Orange County but around the country, the senator has finally acquiesced to the pleas of his partisans to hit harder on ethical questions raised about the Clinton White House. But the attacks have been strangely uneven, often mixed with light banter, as if Mr. Dole still is intimidated by his old reputation as a political hatchet man.

Twenty years ago, when he ran for vice president with Gerald Ford, he was widely regarded as an acerbic hothead. He has been trying to live down that impression. This year he managed to keep his temper fairly well in check as he rolled to the GOP nomination. Then he vowed he would not engage in personal attacks on the president.

However, as Senator Dole remained mired in low poll numbers well into October, he came under increasing pressure from Republican leaders to take off the gloves on the character issue. He did so in his fashion in the second debate with Mr. Clinton but seemed to pull his punches. He got no boost in the polls for his efforts.

Now he is assaulting his opponent on everything from those misused FBI files to acceptance of campaign funds from foreigners. But his attacks often are tempered with almost playful and sometimes lame wisecracks that remove much of the sting.

The difference between himself and Mr. Clinton, the senator said here as the crowd merely tittered, is "I'm getting ready to move into the White House and he's getting ready to move out of the White House." And this: "If I had a dollar for every time he [Mr. Clinton] has leveled with the American people, I'd keep one and give the other to Elizabeth."

No peace after death

When Mr. Dole says he would eliminate the federal estate tax, he half-jokes that "you can't even rest in peace" after death, knowing that what you leave to heirs will be taxed. And he likes to recall that when he mentioned on the Senate floor that something taxed his memory, "Ted Kennedy said, 'Why didn't we think of that?' "

These weak one-liners add up to a curious mixed performance by a man who claims to be "outraged" by alleged ethical lapses and excesses. Instead of hurting the president, however, polls indicate that the attacks are backfiring by reinforcing the senator's image as mean.

In these last days Mr. Dole may hammer harder and more consistently on the ethical allegations against Clinton. Or he may retain a degree of restraint, which may in the end serve him better.

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

Pub Date: 10/30/96

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