A Hip Dole Gets Out Of The Gate

When Bob Dole went on "David Letterman" last Friday night, things went so smoothly that the senator looked as if he'd been dropping by the Ed Sullivan Theater for years. He came ready with one-liners (Dole said he had given Clinton 8250 to build a White House jogging track: "I didn't want him running out in the street scaring people") and had his own "Top Seven" ways to cut the budget. Explaining why he hadn't brought a traditional Top 10 list, Dole deadpanned: "Republicans are cutting everything 30 percent." Suggestions included "Stop paying Clinton speechwriters by the word" and "Arkansas? Sell it."

But in the middle of his sheik, Dole casually announced that he's running for president in 1996. The news was not unexpected, but the venue (the nation's most popular late-night comedy show) and the timing (last week) certainly were.

Politicians dream about the kind of week Dole had. It began when Jack Kemp announced he would not run. This accelerated the year-off campaign, as Phil Gramm and Lamar Alexander hit the phones to plunder Kemp's vast political network. "I kept telling my people, 'Well, give me a couple more weeks'," Dole told NEWSWEEK. "They kept saying, 'People are getting sopped up out there. This campaign's started'."

Convinced, Dole jumped in. He was lucky to have had several major media events already in the works, and he seized the spotlight from Gramm, who recently won straw polls in Louisiana and Arizona. In an interview with David Frost on PBS, the 71-year-old Dole tried to defuse worrieshe's too old by suggesting he might promise to serve only one term.

He also said he might announce his running mate at the same time he formally declares his candidacy, in April -- a highly unusual move. This tantalizing possibility provoked rumors that Dole might ask Colin Powell to nm with him. NEWSWEEK has learned that the two recently visited with each other at the general's house in McLean, Va. While Dole insists the vice presidency wasn't directly discussed, he says: "We had a good visit. Talked about a lot of things . . . We talked a lot about politics." Although it's unlikely Dole would actually choose a No. 2 before winning the nomination, dangling the option is a way of attracting more attention. Lately the senator has also chatted with three others, any one of whom might become a running mate: Gov. Pete Wilson of California, Gov. John Engler of Michigan and Gov. Arne Carlson of Minnesota. Meanwhile, to secure his right flank, Dole was the subject of a flattering profile in the conservative Washington Times. "If we had tried to design all this to get momentum," an ebullient Dole said on Saturday, "we probably couldn't have done it."

The Dole boomlet could not come at a better time for him. With his dark features and flat, cutting voice, Dole has always seemed a forbidding figure. The great humanizing element in his life -- his wife, Elizabeth, head of the American Red Cross -- maintains her own grueling schedule, and as a result the Doles are rarely seen together in public. (Observers say it's likely Mrs. Dole would have to take a leave of absence from her nonpartisan post once Dole officially announces. Mrs. Dole avoided the issue with NEWSWEEK, saying, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.") His handlers know Dole still suffers from high-profile displays of temper. In 1988, he snapped "Stop lying about my record" at George Bush on live TV. They also need to let people see Dole outside Washington -- the world in which he's lived for 84 years.

In short, Dole must do something he has so far failed to do: make people like him. "Dole knows there's a world of difference when he smiles," says Kim Wells, a top aide. Admits another senior adviser: "The average person doesn't get to see the likable side of him very often." In fact, two generations of voters have different but equally negative impressions of him. Older voters remember Dole as Gerald Ford's "hatchet man" in 1976, and younger ones may think of him as "Dr. Gridlock" of the first two Clinton years. To buff his image in recent years, Dole has bantered with Jay Leno, chatted with Conan O'Brien and sat for a warm, positive feature in People magazine. The Letterman appearance is the latest, and by far the most significant, attempt to appeal to baby boomers and Generation Xers who do not share his life experiences of the Depression and World War II. And "Saturday Night Live" has talked with Dole's staff about getting the senator on as a guest host. Of course, shrewd political use of popular media isn't new: Clinton went on Arsenio Hall in 1992, and Nixon, seeking to rehabilitate his image for the 1968 campaign, popped up on "Laugh-In."

Dole realizes, however, that the campaign is not going to be won on late-night TV. As Senate majority leader, he's got to deliver between now and '96. The others -- Gramm, Alexander, Dan Quayle, Arlen Specter, Richard Lugar -- aren't in leadership roles.

Only Newt Gingrich, a presidential wild card who associates say is talking more seriously about running since Kemp dropped out, has more at stake than Dole in how well the Republicans make good on their promises. That his last shot at the White House rides so much on Gingrich, who once called the senator the "tax collector for the welfare state," isn't helping Dole's already prickly relationship with the speaker. When David Frost asked Dole if he would cede the field to Gingrich, the senator said no.

Squabbles aside, if Dole can sustain his recent run of luck, he may look back on his boffo Letterman turn as the first, not the last, laugh of the latest run at the one office that's so long eluded him.