ASHLAND, Ohio -- Two former Republican presidents joined Bob Dole in challenging President Clinton's fitness for office yesterday as the GOP standard-bearer barnstormed the nation's heartland on the first leg of a grueling 96-hour sprint to the election day wire.
"We cannot afford four more years of broken promises and a new ethics scandal every week," Dole told a spirited gathering of more than 5,000 at Ashland University, where he drew his largest crowd in days. "Four years ago, Bill Clinton said he wanted to be president in the worst way and now he is."
Dole was accompanied on the first two legs of his final campaign blitz by former Presidents George Bush and Gerald R. Ford, who sought to reinforce Dole's insistence that Clinton is not worthy of his office.
"It breaks my heart to see the White House now under fire, not for policy, about which we can have an honest difference, but because of integrity and honor," said Bush, who lost to Clinton four years ago. "And I am here because I believe passionately in Bob Dole's sense of honor, his ability to tell the truth."
Still lagging far behind Clinton in most polls, Dole recruited the two ex-presidents in an effort to energize the traditional Republican base and stimulate a large GOP turnout on election day.
Both Bush and Ford drew enthusiastic responses from the crowds over the course of the day, but ex-presidents generally don't have coattails and both these former chief executives were turned out of office by the voters.
Bush said even "fainthearted Republicans," meaning those spooked by Dole's weak showing in national polls, "are coming back now because they sense that the Bob Dole message is right for America."
Flying from Ashland to Columbus, Dole kicked off his nonstop campaign with an announcement over the loud speaker in his plane: "It's high noon. Ninety-six hours and counting We're on the way to the White House. Hang on."
Ford, riding with Dole and Bush in the front of the plane, quipped, "Once you get there, is there skiing?"
By 10 hours and four stops later though, Dole was horse and looked tired, despite heavy pancake makeup. He dropped by a bowling alley in East Lansing, Mich., where the regular bowlers had been thrown off the lanes so a Republican rally crowd could fit in.
His attempt to address the gathering was drowned out by competing chants from his supporters and a band of Clinton loyalists shouting, "Four more years."
"No more years," Dole said, repeating the GOP refrain. Then he shook a few hands and left in less than 10 minutes.
At rallies in three cities in Ohio and Michigan, Bush and Ford each praised Dole's character and made pointed references to alleged ethical lapses by the Clinton administration as well as to the president's avoidance of military service during the Vietnam War.
For both men, a return to the campaign trail was partly a matter of repaying a favor to a longtime friend, and partly a matter of settling old scores.
Bush said he wasn't much interested in politics anymore, but was motivated by "old-fashioned values: duty, honor, country. That's what makes me so proud to be at the side of my friend Bob Dole. He's earned his stripes, both in combat and in the Senate."
Ford, a vice president who became president when Richard M. Nixon was forced to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal, said a Dole administration would be free of the controversies that have dogged Clinton.
"A Dole White House won't sell the Lincoln bedroom for money from foreigners," Ford said, mixing two complaints about Clinton's fund-raising practices.
And when Dole, a wounded combat veteran, goes to the Pentagon as president, Ford said, "he will have earned his salutes from the Army, Navy and Marines."
Ford was defeated in his bid for election in his own right -- on a ticket featuring Dole in the second spot -- in part because of the backlash that followed his pardon of Nixon.
Ford said Ohio, which he lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976 by 11,000 votes out of 4 million cast, has traditionally been pivotal for Republicans. "If we had carried the state of Ohio we would have been elected," he said.
Ohio also helped spell defeat for Bush in 1992, and it doesn't look strong for Dole at this point either, according to polls.
"If he wins here, it will be a real upset," said Rep. John R. Kasich, a Republican from Columbus who appeared with Dole.
But Dole, who likened his refusal to give up on the presidential contest to his successful struggle to overcome paralysis from his war wounds, says he's undeterred.
He offered new proposals yesterday to create a bipartisan commission on campaign finance reform and outlined steps he would take to tighten ethics regulations at the White House. Meanwhile, his entourage -- staff, press, security guards -- had to leave behind everything that couldn't fit in a small duffel bag and headed for nighttime stops in Detroit, New Jersey and Philadelphia.
Recalling the wartime letter his parents got saying he was dying, Dole told the crowd in Ashland: "I didn't give up then, I'm not going to give up now. We're going to win this election."
Pub Date: 11/02/96