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Dole is on a big roll // The real Bob Dole can be seen in Washington

Published Jul. 6, 2006

First in a series of profiles of the leading Republican candidates for president.

Tradition dictates that the members of the United States Senate break bread each Tuesday in two separate rooms. As is his custom, Bob Dole walked the few steps from his office last Tuesday to join his Republican colleagues.

No matter there was a presidential campaign under way and his competitors were out rustling up votes. Bob Dole, an old-fashioned Kansan who reveres institutions, went to lunch.

When he entered the splendid wood-paneled Mansfield Room, the lawmakers did something startling: They stood and applauded their 72-year-old leader.

It was warmer than any reception Dole has received on the campaign trail.

"Sometimes it feels like you're the punching bag," he quipped afterward. "I guess that's the role of the front-runner."

Back in the place where he is master of all he surveys, Dole summed up the shift in his usual clipped, candid style: "I feel very comfortable here."

Bob Dole learned early in life the path to success as a legislator is behind closed doors, developing the personal relationships and political acumen to keep one step ahead of the rest. Yet now, the very skills that carried him so far may prevent him from ever reaching the pinnacle of power.

Ever since his second-place finish in New Hampshire, the presidential candidate has been promising to show voters the "real Bob Dole." Yet if Floridians making their choice next week really want to meet the most enduring political figure in America today, they must journey to Washington.

Here under the magnificent Capitol dome, jumping from meeting to meeting while keeping vote tallies in his head, Dole is in his element. More than Russell, Kan., where his neighbors collected money in a cigar box to pay his medical bills; more than the waterfront condominium complex in Bal Harbour, where he hobnobs with corporate chieftains; the Senate is home for Bob Dole.

On the trail, critics label the majority leader old, nasty, visionless and _ the harshest of all charges these days _ an insider. In the glare of a grueling campaign, the string of accomplishments known in Washington salons are overshadowed by his image of a dark, acerbic, horsetrading pol.

On Capitol Hill he is tireless, witty and patient. From the lowly elevator operators who voted him nicest lawmaker to his staunchest Democratic opponents, Dole comes across as a warm, trustworthy person who rarely loses his temper and never curses.

In a place where seniority and experience are assets, Dole is a wealthy man.

"He would be the best Republican president in my lifetime," says Lawrence O'Donnell Jr., who as a top Democratic staffer at the Finance Committee often sat across the table from Dole.

As he makes his third and final attempt for the White House, observers say it is a fundamental _ and possibly fatal _ flaw that Dole is unable to tell the country why he wants to be president and what he would do in the Oval Office.

"You serve in the Senate long enough and you feel, "It's my turn, I earned it,'

" says former Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas. "That's a lot different than going out and convincing people you are the right person to lead the country. He may never recognize the difference and simply go down as a footnote."

The big picture

Three weeks ago, Washington Sen. Mark Hatfield was reminiscing about his decision to buck the GOP and Dole by opposing the Balanced Budget Amendment. Knowing his vote would kill the bill and potentially embarrass Dole in the presidential contest, he offered to resign.

"He said, "No, I wouldn't even consider that,'

" Hatfield recalls. "He was looking at the big picture; not running all over people."

Even now, as criticism has mounted, Dole stands by Hatfield: "In fact, I don't want him to resign now."

This, say friends, is the same Bob Dole who formed an informal support network for men like himself with prostate cancer. (Dole recovered from the cancer and had his prostate removed.)

"I would receive a call from him asking how I was doing," says William Treat, a former judge who lives in Naples. "For a man as busy as he is to take that much interest in another person's medical problems is really extraordinary."

Yet Dole is also a "fierce competitor," Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle says admiringly.

For a full year, Democrats watched with glee as Sen. Phil Gramm scrambled to outflank Dole on the right. Gramm, who just dropped out of the presidential race, took a harsher stance on welfare, pushed for deeper tax cuts and led the attack against surgeon general nominee Henry Foster.

Each time, observers held their breath, wondering how Dole would respond to the pesky Texan. And each time Dole found a way to outmaneuver _ often rounding up the votes to defeat Gramm's proposal while supporting it himself.

The final test came last month, just before the Iowa caucuses.

As Daschle recalls, Dole was scrambling to pass the farm bill, legislation near and dear to the hearts of Iowans. Yet when Dole, an expert vote counter, brought the measure to the floor, "it fell one vote short," says Daschle.

"Just by coincidence Phil Gramm was that one vote," he adds. "It was no surprise that immediately following the vote Bob Dole blamed Phil Gramm that we lost."

And it came as no surprise the next day when Dole worked out a compromise with the Democrats, heading off to Iowa touting his great legislative victory.

Although by no means a natural politician, Dole is a quick study _ and more important, a survivor. The skills he displays today are the result of some bitter lessons along the way.

The first, and hardest pill to swallow, was long before he ever considered politics.

A strapping young man who excelled in sports, his dreams exploded with the shell that struck him on a mountainside in Italy 50 years ago. He thought about becoming a doctor, but that was impossible. Dole's right arm was rendered useless and his left not much better. So he turned to law and then politics, starting as a county attorney and quickly moving up to Congress.

More than any vote or bill, what really stood out in the early years was Dole's ambition, recalls Kim Wells, a Kansas City lawyer who worked for Dole. "He was not content to be a backbencher."

First, Dole spent time debating on the floor, but he quickly learned the real action was behind closed doors. In 1977 he traded his ranking position on the sleepy Agriculture Committee for the top spot on the more powerful Finance Committee.

"As he moves into being a national figure, he becomes more interested in putting the deal together," says University of Kansas professor Burdett Loomis, who has watched Dole for years.

After four decades in government, Dole's legislative legacy is a mixed record. Although he has played key roles in tax reform, the food stamp program and the Americans with Disabilities Act, there is no major piece of legislation that bears his name. (His varying votes gave George Bush the ammunition in 1988 for a TV commercial dubbing Dole "Sen. Straddle.")

The deal-making and fund-raising talents that emerged in Dole remind Loomis of the last great Senate majority leader: Lyndon Johnson.

Both the products of hardscrabble upbringings, Johnson and Dole were drawn to money less for themselves than for power. In the 1960s, when Johnson wielded great influence on Capitol Hill, he distributed cash to up-and-coming young Democrats.

"Johnson was the funnel for an awful lot of congressional campaigns," remembers George Christian, Johnson's longtime aide. "It was one way of keeping your friends in Congress."

The laws have changed since then, but like Johnson, Dole has found ways to make money work for him. His extensive empire of political action committees and foundations has given him a rich and reliable network of friends. It's all legal. And it all helps him remain one of the most powerful men in Washington.

To be sure, differences abound. Johnson was crude, boisterous and inclined to grab people by the lapels. Dole is a private man. He says little in meetings, preferring to "let others vent," as his top aide Sheila Burke, puts it.

It is not uncommon for Dole to convene several meetings at once, flitting from his office to a conference room to his balcony looking down the Mall to the Washington Monument.

"He lets everyone have their say," says O'Donnell, who has watched hundreds of such gatherings. "What everyone in the room is waiting for is what Bob Dole has to say. It will come out eventually _ probably in a half sentence like "not gonna work' _ and that's the end of that idea."

Sharing their cynicism

Three months ago, Republican Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island pulled his friend aside and said, "You know, Bob, you ought to talk about yourself."

Chafee and others have implored Dole to recount the moving tales of his war years, his humble childhood in Kansas. Yet in an era of slick politicians who inflate their resumes and conceal their blemishes, Dole seems physically unable to brag.

With prodding he now mentions his father, a man "who wore his overalls to work for 42 years and was proud of it." Or he will spot veterans from his own 10th Mountain Division in a crowd, noting: "We've got a lot of juice left."

Just last week he began mentioning his injury and the difficulty of relearning how to eat and button shirts.

"He is going through agony talking about his war experience," says his friend Treat. "He hates it."

Part of the problem is television. Like LBJ, Dole has not adapted well to modern campaign techniques. In a field that demands not only substance but style, the two backroom brokers have never sold themselves well.

In this era of talk-show style, I-feel-your-pain campaigning, Dole is stiff and blunt. In fact, all of his major setbacks have occurred on television.

From his 1976 debate remark complaining of "Democrat wars" to his infamous 1988 comment to Bush to stop lying about his record, Dole's public image has been shaped by scowling TV appearances.

When he delivered the response to President Clinton's State of the Union address in January, it was Dole at his worst. The content was harsh, his face haggard and the delivery bumbling.

Often his stump speeches are no better. He speaks in the third person. He meanders, sprinkling partial sentences with such throwaway words as "whatever." Then, he abruptly sits down.

In an attempt to address people's fears about unfair trade practices, he offered this clumsy version of the Golden Rule: "Do unto others whatever they try to do unto you."

Dole uses his quick wit to deflect criticism of his speaking style. "I gave a fireside chat the other night and the fire went out," he told audiences after the response to Clinton.

Still, it is obvious Dole scorns some of the prerequisites of modern politicking. He may not feel voters' pain, but he shares their cynicism.

"You never really know much about all these candidates," he says. "They blow into town, then they blow off, and then they blow out again. That's about all you ever get."

"Who Bob Dole is'

With a victory in South Carolina behind him and the nomination in his sights, Bob Dole took on the critics.

"A lot of people say, "Well, Bob Dole's all right but he's been there so long,'

" he told a crowd Sunday in Gaithersburg, Md. "I want you to know who Bob Dole is. I was born in Russell, Kan. I just didn't show up in America as the majority leader of the United States Senate."

But, as so often happens, Dole himself acknowledged that may not be enough.

"I want you to know I didn't just start at the top and work my way to where I am now _ maybe some would say at the bottom, being in Congress."


U.S. senator from Kansas, elected in 1968; U.S. representative 1961-68; Russell County attorney, 1953-61; Kansas legislator, 1951-53

Born: July 22, 1923, Russell, Kan.

Education: A.B., LL.B, Washburn University, 1952

Military service: U.S. Army, 1943-1948, two Purple Hearts, Bronze Star with Oakleaf cluster

Family: Divorced, remarried to Elizabeth Hanford in 1975, one child