At Close Range

THERE WERE BAGELS ON the table the first morning they met to do business--and Bob Dole did not want bagels. ""Where are the doughnuts?'' he jokingly muttered in the Cabinet Room at the White House. Bill Clinton's men found some fast: chocolate, located in a mere 10 minutes, to satisfy the Republican Senate leader. Dole had another complaint, this one profound. The new Democratic president, Dole knew, was preparing an economic plan with $120 billion in new taxes. Forget it, Dole said. Clinton could expect no Republican support--that is, zero GOP votes--for the package. Dole made good on the threat: the plan was pursued and passed--barely--by Democrats alone.

The doughnut-and-budget breakfast took place only six days after Clinton took office, in January 1993. Now, nearly four years later, Bob Dole and Bill Clinton are rehearsing for the pivotal moment of the 1996 presidential campaign: this Sunday's televised debate in Hartford, Conn. And in a way, nothing has changed. The two are still taking each other's measure, still debating taxes and spending, still circling each other, alternating bonhomie and blunt confrontation.

They had never met before that January. Twenty years ago in Arkansas, Clinton wrote a letter to a friend in which he called Dole ""the biggest prick in Congress.'' On the day after the 1992 election, Dole declared that Clinton had ""no mandate'' and that he--Dole--would seek to represent the ""majority'' of Americans.

In private, they are neither friends nor mortal enemies. Clinton views Dole as a decent man sadly buffeted between his charitable instincts and the dictates of the GOP's right wing. Dole sees Clinton as the kind of man he would have distrusted in the Senate--too ambitious to keep his word--but respects him as a consummate public performer. This race is a rarity in modern politics. The two candidates have spent four years in close company. No opponents since John Kennedy and Richard Nixon have known each other's moves so well.

Don't feel guilty if you haven't paid attention to the campaign: there hasn't been much of a race to follow. But this Sunday, before a Super Bowl-size audience that could number 100 million, Clinton and Dole will play out their rivalry in a 90-minute debate. Behind in the polls but gaining inch by inch, Dole needs a resounding victory.

Dole has no choice but to make it Bloody Sunday, attacking Clinton as a feckless big spender pretending to be a responsible moderate. The president, ahead but aware of the fragility of his standing and the fickleness of the voters, needs to present himself as the mature incumbent--and is probably home free if he succeeds.

So far, Clinton's had it pretty easy. Dole's campaign was broke and themeless from last March, when he won the nomination, until his convention in August. Clintonites staked out the middle, carpet-bombing Dole with ads depicting him as Newt Gingrich's soulmate: a heartless foe of Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment. At 73, Dole has had a hard time looking like a plausible alternative. Meanwhile, the economic numbers are strong.

Nor is this a riveting Manichaean struggle--at least not yet. Though Dole and Clinton have tried to paint each other as extremists, most voters still see two moderate Washington insiders maneuvering for advantage. Clinton himself has tried to speak in quieter tones. He's the national Mr. Fix-It, with a kit of modest tools. Each is meant to help renovate family life--and to turn out specific parts of the electorate, especially women. Dole has tried to ""raise the stakes'' ideologically with his tax-cut plan, but his instincts are hardly radical. Even the House Republicans now are scurrying to present themselves as moderates, accepting Clinton's spending numbers as they rushed to adjourn Congress last weekend.

But the lethargic mood may be lifting. Hammering at Clinton on drugs, crime and liberalism, Dole has narrowed the national ""horse race''--not by raising his own numbers but by knocking Clinton down and sending voters either to the ""undecided'' column or to Ross Perot, who is suing to be included in the debates. The Electoral College math--the only kind that counts--still looks bleak for Dole. According to state-by-state polls, he can count only 111 electoral votes in or near his column; he needs 270 to win. Clinton, with a lock on the West Coast and the Northeast, can count 412. Still, the South is moving back to Dole, and his campaign is targeting the ""battleground'' states of the Midwest.

NONE OF THIS WILL MATTER IF Dole doesn't break through on Sunday. ""He has to be aggressive and alive without being crotchety,'' said GOP media man Mike Deaver. Dole's handlers grounded him last weekend at his beloved Sea View Hotel in Bal Harbour, Fla. For three days--an extraordinary chunk of time in the middle of the fall campaign--Dole sunned himself, watched videotapes of past presidential debates and perused briefing books with trusted aides from his Senate days. Traveling lightly this week, Dole will work on de- bate ""run-throughs.'' Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, a movie actor turned politician, will play Clinton. The president's own ""debate prep'' won't begin in earnest until later this week; former senator George Mitchell of Maine will play Dole.

But Clinton and Dole don't need stand-ins to get a sense of each other. Though the president has great faith in his own charm, he learned early on that Dole is impervious to it. At first, Clinton diligently wooed the senator; doughnuts were just a start. There was an unusual presidential visit to the Hill for lunch, and a downtown dinner (just the Clintons and the Doles) arranged by superlawyer Robert Strauss. Elizabeth Dole, president of the American Red Cross, was invited along for tours of the flood-damaged Midwest. And though Clinton and Dole clashed on the budget and the president's ""stimulus package''--the latter defeated by a Dole-led filibuster in the Senate--they still worked together closely on NAFTA and other issues.

By mid-1993, Clinton was calling the senator ""Bob,'' recalls Howard Paster, the former head of congressional relations in the White House. But in January 1994, on the day Clinton was traveling to Arkansas for his mother's funeral, ""Bob'' bluntly demanded the appointment of a Whitewater special prosecutor. The president remained angry over the incident for two years, until author Bob Woodward told Dole about Clinton's resentment. In the White House last spring, Dole took Clinton aside and gave him a letter of apology.

If Clinton believes in charm, Dole believes in deals. On Sunday Dole will present the TV audience with the view he developed watching Clinton from the Senate: that the president says one thing and does another. For Dole, the pivotal moment came last December, during the showdown over the GOP budget that threatened a Christmastime shutdown of the government. Clinton and Dole were regular phone pals at that point, working a back channel to outmaneuver Gingrich's militants in the House. At one point, the president called ""Bob'' to propose a new round of talks. Shortly thereafter, Dole took a look at the TV in his office--and saw a Democratic ad blasting Dole and Gingrich as extremists. In ""The Choice,'' Woodward records Dole's reaction. He told campaign manager Scott Reed that ""Clinton would say and do anything to get re-elected.''

Though neither of them would care to admit it, Clinton and Dole are remarkably alike: two ambitious sons of small-town America, men of the middle hungry for the same job. They share an admiration for Richard Nixon, whom Dole knew as ""The Old Man.'' Both spoke at Nixon's funeral in California in 1994. They flew to Yorba Linda on separate planes, but praised him in similar terms. ""He never gave up being part of the action,'' Clinton said. ""The American people love a fighter,'' said Dole, ""and in Dick Nixon they found a gallant one.'' The Old Man would have wanted a front-row seat in Hartford on Sunday.