Inside The Dole Meltdown

MAYBE IT WAS THE crowds: huge, boisterous, angry at the thought that Bill Clinton might win another term. Maybe it was that the president was waltzing away from scandals that in the old days would have felled better men. Maybe it was the ancient story, unearthed by a tabloid, about an alleged affair a quarter century ago. Or maybe it was just that he was tired, that the polls hadn't budged, that he was campaigning in a state he should have locked up long ago, that he was about to lose the dream he had nurtured for 46 years in politics.

For whatever reason, Bob Dole lost it in Texas. Last week he was King Lear in a Brooks Brothers suit. Old grudges surfaced, and new ones. His predicament was the liberal media's fault. ""The country belongs to the people, not The New York Times,'' he thundered in Dallas. Democrats were ""rushing'' immigrants with criminal backgrounds onto the voter rolls. ""They want to get them ready for Election Day,'' Dole said. Society was at fault for ignoring the ever-lengthening list of ethical and legal questions surrounding Clinton. ""Where's the outrage in America?'' Dole demanded in Houston. ""Where's the outrage?''

There was plenty of outrage among Republicans. But much of it was aimed at Dole's campaign, especially after it bungled an attempt to convince Ross Perot to quit the race. Campaign manager Scott Reed had secretly flown to Dallas last Wednesday to meet with Perot. The two met at the billionaire's private airport hangar. But in the midst of a cordial discussion about Clinton's ""ethical shortcomings,'' NEWSWEEK has learned, one of Perot's aides handed him an AP wire story. Someone at the Dole campaign had leaked word of the meeting. Perot, suspecting a PR stunt rather than a real deal, stalked out, and later publicly dismissed the meeting as ""inconsequential.'' It was a humiliating episode.

While Dole blames the media and the voters, GOP operatives are blaming the campaign--and Dole insiders are beginning to snipe at each other. Beating Clinton was never going to be easy, and Dole has made it even harder. Indecision is one reason. From the start, Dole flitted from theme to theme. He has sought the advice of many--too many, insiders say--but never listened to any one of them long enough. After the first televised debate, NEWSWEEK has learned, Sen. Al D'Amato confronted his longtime ally. ""Nobody understands where the campaign is going,'' D'Amato said, according to a source. Dole snapped back. ""I listen to 50 people a day,'' he said. ""That's the problem,'' D'Amato retorted.

Indecision leads to bad timing. Early on, the campaign shied away from stressing issues such as immigration and racial preferences. The themes are especially potent in California. But Dole's failure to feature them made his last-minute bet on California a waste, top insiders said. ""Three weeks does not a campaign make,'' groused a California state party official.

Same for ""character.'' Top White House aides were deeply worried last spring that Dole would focus on Clinton's ethical problems as a prelude to the fall campaign. Dole had an excuse to do so when the FBI-files story broke. ""Boy, we were vulnerable at that time,'' said a White House adviser. ""If they had gone after us then, this might have been a different race right now.'' Dole didn't, convinced by aides that the character issue hadn't worked on Clinton in '92 and wouldn't work this year.

Now Dole has to sit by while Perot, back on the stage, gets the headlines as he warns a second Clinton term would bring ""a second Watergate.'' Indeed, Perot was making the case more succinctly. And perhaps that was one more reason Dole, in Dallas, was such an angry man. There was every chance, he knew, that the country would soon get to see whether Perot's prediction was right.