CNN/TIME AllPolitics Vote '96

A Year Of Missed Opportunities For The GOP

By Craig Staats/AllPolitics

WASHINGTON (Oct. 30) -- If Bill Clinton wins big on Tuesday, 1996 may go down for Republicans as a year of "what if's."

Time and again, the Republicans missed chances to make the race more competitive and crack what seemed like broad but thin support for Bill Clinton.

Time and again, Republicans looked for a new beginning, a new strategy, a new initiative to shake up the race, only to come up disappointed.

Some people who might have waged a more vigorous campaign against Clinton, including Jack Kemp or Colin Powell, took themselves out of contention early on.

Then a compressed GOP primary season, with many contests in quick succession, gave an edge to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who had money, name recognition, the party hierarchy and a strong belief that it was finally his turn, as party elder, to pursue the White House.


Some of Dole's rivals tried, without success, to warn early on that he was not the right candidate to challenge Clinton. At an Iowa debate in January, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander was the most explicit.

"We need to say with respect to Senator Dole, it may be your turn, but it's not your revolution," Alexander said. "It's time to move on."

After a loss in New Hampshire, Dole did in fact look vulnerable, but only to an unelectable Pat Buchanan. A win in South Carolina put Dole back on track, and then, all of a sudden, Dole was the putative nominee.

The first what if? What if the primary season had been longer, more leisurely, to give minor candidates more time in the political marketplace to build support for themselves and their ideas? Some GOP leaders favor that approach in the year 2000.

By April, when Dole had the nomination locked up, buyer's remorse was already setting in. Some party bigwigs broke ranks to say they didn't see much enthusiasm for Dole and warned he might lose badly in the fall.

Dole's flaws as a candidate are no secret. He is a tactician, not a strategist. He is a veteran lawmaker, more comfortable with working on the details of a bill than in offering a compelling vision for people to rally around. When ex-Dole ad man Don Sipple asked him about his strategic vision for the campaign, Dole reportedly replied, "Think I'll win. Could be big."

Even on the stump, Dole speaks in a cryptic Capitol Hill shorthand that often leaves supporters trying to figure out what he's talking about. At times, he can be eloquent, as he was when he resigned from the Senate or when he accepted the Republican nomination in San Diego.

But on both occasions, it was hard to tell where Dole stopped and where speechwriter Mark Helprin began.

After Dole stepped down from the Senate, Republicans hoped for a different candidate, with a sharper message.

What did they get? A needless foray into whether tobacco is addictive and remarks that seemed to question the independence and intelligence of Dr. C. Everett Koop, the respected former Surgeon General. All that tangent did was waste time and give another opening to the Democrats, who privately called Dole's comments about tobacco "a gift from God."

More important, it was difficult for Dole, a career legislator with 35 years in Washington, to make a persuasive case that suddenly he was "just a man," no different than your average Wal-Mart clerk.

Many of Dole's campaign days, after all, started the same way, with a quick TV shot of the candidate leaving his apartment at the posh Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., and climbing into a chauffeured car for the ride to the airport.

After leaving the Senate, the next supposed new beginning for Dole's campaign was his proposal for a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut. It was a dramatic move, but it failed to excite the voters, who were skeptical of the promise that he could cut taxes and the deficit at the same time. It called into question Dole's credentials as a deficit hawk.

The next missed opportunity: the debates. Dole's camp wanted to go one-on-one with Clinton, so they worked to keep Ross Perot out.

That's a what-if, too, because while Perot may be as useless as a wood tick on a hound dog when it comes to prescribing remedies, he has a knack for describing the problem. Perot might have decided Clinton was the immediate problem and whacked him then the way he did later on in his National Press Club speech on Oct. 24.


In the first presidential debate, Dole chose not to raise the question of Clinton's public ethics, despite a softball question from moderator Jim Lehrer which gave him a perfect opening to discuss the administration's lapses and its evasiveness when challenged about those problems.

The campaign tone changed again on Oct. 15, the day before the final debate in San Diego. That was when Dole delivered his harshest attack yet on Clinton's public ethics. But Dole found it hard to follow up the next day, when it would have looked unseemly to hijack citizens' questions to drive home his case.

With Clinton maintaining a fairly steady double-digit lead in the polls, the race looks all but over, barring a seismic shift in the final days. There are few truly undecided voters anywhere. And it may be that in a time of relative economic stability and no great crises abroad, any Republican would have trouble dislodging Clinton this year.

A focus on Dole's missed opportunities also ignores, of course, the way that Clinton, after 1994, morphed back into a middle-of-the-road "New Democrat."

With initiatives like funding for local police, support for school uniforms and the V-chip, as well as his signing of restrictive new welfare legislation, Clinton came back to the center. It was a success, even if the man who got credit for the "values" strategy was Dick Morris, whose adventures with a prostitute embarrassed the president during the Democratic National Convention.

But depending on what happens Tuesday, Republicans may be in a for a rueful winter. They will look back on this campaign and compare the opportunities they had with their own strategic miscues. And they'll be left to wonder about what could have been.
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