Finally, after so many bitter defeats, so many setbacks, everything seemed perfect for Bob Dole when he strode into Pinkerton Academy this weekend. With the American flags, red and white balloons and a hot jazz band, the tableau oozed victory.
"A new America is within our reach," said the Senate majority leader who hopes to move to the White House. "It's going to start here; it's going to happen here on Tuesday."
State leaders praised him. The crowd of 550 cheered. The kids gave him a sweatshirt. Then, turning, in a voice loud enough to be picked up by microphones, Dole asked: "Are we done yet?"
For Bob Dole, the 72-year-old war hero who is making his third and final attempt at national office, the New Hampshire primary cannot end soon enough.
The man who grew up in Kansas and now glides easily through the corridors of Congress is an awkward visitor to this flannel-clad, snow-covered state. He, the master of parliamentary maneuvers and legislative details, does not speak Yankee. Dole tries to bridge the gap with quips about the military sending a Kansas boy to join the 10th Mountain Division. And he mentions his frequent "vacations" in New Hampshire.
"I come up here when there's no election," he said. "Go down to Lake Winnipesaukee, borrow Judge (William) Treat's house for a couple days."
But on his trip to the lake last August, Dole installed fax machines, gripped cellular phones and deemed a navy blazer sans tie his leisure wear.
Dole will never forget that the fickle voters of New Hampshire let him down eight years ago, choosing George Bush in a primary that was the beginning of the end. Today, he says the ghosts of 1988 don't haunt him. But Dole raises the topic at almost every stop.
"I think your judgment has been pretty good over the past," he told members of the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce. "You made a little slip in '88, but we'll forgive that. Everybody's entitled to one mistake."
As he rides from school gym to bakery to office park, it is as though Dole and his aides are counting the hours to the poll closings here Tuesday night. Fearing a slip, any distant reminder of the hatchet man image, they move gingerly. His audiences are often invited, inquiring reporters kept at a distance and TV interviews verboten.
Bob Dole and his staff can't rewrite history, but they can copy it. And particularly here in New Hampshire, a small state with a disproportionately large share of political power every four years, the Dole strategists are cribbing liberally from the Bush model.
There's Bob Dole riding in a snow plow.
There's Bob Dole waving the starting flag at the Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby.
There's Bob Dole stopping into Harvey's Bakery and the Sweetland Restaurant.
"This is old-fashioned New Hampshire politics," said Dole's state chairman, Rep. Bill Zeliff, who helped Bush in 1988 and '92.
Zeliff and New Hampshire Gov. Steve Merrill, who is campaigning for Dole, are like bodyguards, ready to dive in front of a bad photo or an annoying question. Even when Dole "stopped in" Harvey's, he sat at a counter with the two politicians. Two "real people" sat at the far ends a safe distance away.
Dole's camp is also following the high-road/low-road approach mastered by the Bush strategists. In person, Dole smiles and talks about America as the greatest country on Earth. He rarely mentions his opponents by name, opting instead to talk about future generations and a brighter tomorrow.
"We've got to be positive about this," he told reporters at one stop. "Some people hammer and hammer and hammer at fears of people. We need people on the other side talking about the hopes and aspirations and dreams that are still out there for a lot of people if we do the right thing."
It is a dramatic departure from his dark reputation and acidic response to President Clinton's State of the Union address a month ago.
Yet Dole is not shying away from the battle. He, like Bush, is merely letting others play attack dog. Merrill has taken to the airwaves with sharply negative commercials criticizing Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes. His spokesman, Nelson Warfield, has waged a daily assault on Pat Buchanan, who now appears best poised to steal victory from Dole here.
For all the fine-tuning and savvy planning, nothing can change the fact that the candidate himself faces real hurdles in the 1996 campaign. Dole is a Washington veteran at a time when that is anathema. He speaks in clipped phrases with legislative jargon rather than the bear-your-soul Oprah format now in vogue on the campaign trail.
Dole's message lacks a broad, coherent vision of where he would take the country. He sprinkles his speeches with policy appetizers _ balance the budget, reduce taxes, shift power to the states. But the main course has not come.
Instead, the Dole pitch is oddly reminiscent of Democrat Michael Dukakis. "The bottom line is this: I've had the experience that shaped my judgment," he said. "I know there's a little downside to ever mentioning Washington, D.C., but the truth is that's where you get experience. I'm not running for talk show host."
And Dole, a private man of modest roots, is talking for the first time about his private side. "I've never forgotten where I came from _ Russell, Kan. _ 5,500 people," he says often. "My dad wore overalls to work every day for 42 years and was proud of it. My mother went out and peddled Singer sewing machines. We grew up in a basement apartment _ six of us."
Then he turns to World War II, the fight in the hills of Italy that left him permanently wounded and just a hint bitter. "I wanted to be a doctor," he tells audiences.
But the point is this, Dole says: His generation knows the meaning of sacrifice for this great country. "Maybe there's one more bugle call out there."