Pssst, Bob Dole beats his wife

Pssst, Bob Dole beats his wife

Kenneth T. Walsh

Elizabeth Dole seemed to be hitting her stride in the past few weeks. After a couple of months of uninspiring events, the rookie campaigner with the good poll numbers showed her independence by suggesting to Republican conservatives that abortion should not dominate the presidential campaign. She backed basic gun-control measures and implicitly challenged front-runner George W. Bush to do the same. And, while visiting Kosovo, she argued that NATO ought to play hardball to win the war with Yugoslavia.

Then Mrs. Dole ran into her husband. In an eye-popping interview with the New York Times early last week–which came as a big surprise to everyone on Mrs. Dole’s exploratory committee–Bob Dole called attention to some embarrassing facts: She was having serious trouble raising money; he might give a donation to his old buddy John McCain, a competing candidate; both Bush and Vice President Al Gore will probably be tough to beat; and, in the unkindest cut of all, he said his wife might need help sorting out the issues and he would be willing to “direct her” if asked.

Inside Mrs. Dole’s campaign, the reactions varied between those who wanted to psychoanalyze the former Senate majority leader and those who wanted to strangle him. Mrs. Dole, one source says, fell into the latter camp, leaving some to wonder, as former congresswoman Susan Molinari did, “After this interview, is Bob Dole going to need Viagra?”

Bob Dole’s ultimate sin may have been to speak the truth–especially about money–in such a hothouse environment. “If she can’t raise more money over the next six weeks, it’s gone,” says one insider. “And he could be responsible.” So far, GOP strategists say, she has collected less than $1 million, compared with Bush’s $13 million, and was about to attend a series of 25 or 30 fund-raising events. Now, says one strategist, the number could be cut in half if her influential husband’s lack of enthusiasm gives potential donors pre-buyer’s remorse. Despite her high name recognition among voters, if she fails to inspire a surge in contributions by June 30, the midyear federal reporting deadline, party bankrollers may give up on her altogether.

No one who worked in Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign was surprised at his foot-in-mouth proclivities. But his gaffe roughly paralleled President Clinton’s recent public critique of Gore’s campaign and stodgy political style. Clinton, aides say, was merely trying to counter what he thought was a negative story in the works, so he rang up the reporter, the Time’s Richard Berke. But his indiscreet interview only made matters worse as he catalogued Gore’s foibles.

“Bob Dole and Bill Clinton are having trouble leaving center stage,” says a GOP strategist who has worked with both men. And chances are, their inability to let go will only get worse.

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