At an event that looked more like a campaign rally than an executive announcement -- with reporters, photographers and hundreds of Red Cross employees crammed shoulder to shoulder in an ornate hall and TV satellite trucks parked outside -- Dole said she was leaving to pursue other options, and hinted that they could include public office.
"At this important time in our national life, I believe there may be another way for me to serve our country," said Dole, 62. "The Red Cross has been a glorious mission field, but I believe there may be other duties yet to fulfill."
Dole said in her speech that she had not made definite plans about what she would do after leaving the Red Cross presidency in two weeks. "Soon I will begin considering new paths," she said. "And there are exciting possibilities. I will choose one and pursue it with all my might."
In a brief response to reporters' questions about whether she planned to throw her hat into the GOP presidential ring, she said: "I'm going to give it serious consideration. We're going to have to talk about it down the road."
The former two-time Cabinet secretary noted that she had to separate any pursuit of the presidency from her stewardship of the Red Cross because of the charity's tradition of political neutrality.
Some familiar with Dole's plans say she intends to spend the next few weeks talking to people about whether she should pursue the top spot or position herself to be selected as the vice-presidential candidate, and plans to form a presidential exploratory committee within the next month.
Those close to her noted that Dole, known for being highly prepared and organized before she takes any step, would not be leaving the Red Cross if she weren't extremely serious about a presidential bid.
"If I was a betting a person, I would say that the likelihood of her running for president is very high," said longtime friend and colleague Jenna Dorn, a former Red Cross official who is president of the National Health Museum. "She brings the skills, integrity, experience and the passion for real-people issues the country needs, and people recognize it. The stars are kind of aligned. I would bet that it's going to happen."
Dole, a Harvard-educated lawyer who served as secretary of transportation in the Reagan administration and secretary of labor in the Bush administration, has led the Red Cross since February 1991.
She took a leave of absence from the organization to help her husband's 1996 presidential campaign, and was such a hit on the campaign trial and at the GOP convention that Senator Dole joked that his wife was the more appealing candidate.
Although she has never run for political office, she has long been a favorite in GOP political circles.
A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed Dole was the second choice for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Because of her popularity and name recognition, some say she would likely have an easier time raising money for a presidential run than other potential candidates, a key factor in her decision.
"At this point, she's mostly looking at, is the support viable for running for president?'" said one source who has talked to Dole about her plans. "That means everything from volunteer support to money and money and money and money. That's a force to be reckoned with."
Dole's experience at the Red Cross, where her high profile and access to deep-pocketed contributors brought in lots of cash, suggests she could do well in that regard.
"One thing she proved as president of the Red Cross is that she can raise money in a hurry," said Paul Clolery, editor of the NonProfit Times, a newsletter that reports on the activities of the Red Cross and other nonprofit organizations.
Another adviser said a key consideration for Dole was whether she could win. "She wouldn't want to do it unless she thought she would win," the adviser said.
Some advisers and friends, including the former Kansas senator who was defeated in three presidential bids, have stressed the historic nature of an Elizabeth Dole candidacy. If nominated, she would be the first woman nominated for president by a major political party, and if elected, the first woman president.
"I think the country is ready for a woman president," she said recently on CBS' "Face the Nation." "So I think we're going to see that happen in our lifetime."
Her husband has been pressing her to run, say those close to the Doles. "He says to her, 'You've got to do it. It would be fun,' " said one friend. "He thinks the time is perfect."
Although Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign staff could provide a ready-made political infrastructure for another Dole candidacy, those close to Elizabeth Dole say she would put together a different sort of campaign with a different staff and a much broader coalition.
"She's her own person," said one close friend.
Dole's hints about her future, which are likely to grow stronger as she makes the rounds of TV talk shows, come as the first outlines of the presidential race in 2000 are beginning to take shape.
Last week, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona established a presidential exploratory committee. Yesterday, New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, considered a long shot for the GOP nomination, opened his presidential campaign office. And today, Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft, a favorite of Christian conservatives, was scheduled to announce his presidential plans amid reports that he was backing out of the race.
Pub Date: 1/05/99