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Dole in Sunshine State recalls dark days // NO. 1

Riding aboard his gleaming 727 en route to Florida, Sen. Bob Dole is coasting toward the Republican Party's presidential nomination.

After enduring the brutal winds of Iowa, the icy roads of New Hampshire and fickle voters all over, Dole is finally on his way to the job that has eluded him for the last 15 years.

"I feel good," he says simply.

It wasn't long ago Dole felt miserable about his prospects. He thought he might lose his third and final chance at the White House.

Things have turned around and now Dole's visits to battlegrounds such as Florida and Texas have the air of a general election tour.

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times on the Leader's Ship late Wednesday, Dole reflected on his electoral odyssey.

The low point, he says, was New Hampshire. That's when the Senate majority leader thought that Steve Forbes, with all his money and an arsenal of attack ads, would beat him.

"We had to just hunker down and take it," he says, mentioning the precise dates that Forbes' negative commercials went unanswered.

"Oct. 23 to Jan. 12. When the book is written, we'll learn that his strategy was to knock Bob Dole out early and then win the nomination," Dole says. "He came close. In Iowa it was disappointingly close and in New Hampshire it was disappointingly close."

Dole, always the political technician, worried over rain forecasts for the morning of the New Hampshire primary.

"Everybody kept saying, "Don't worry about this, our people are going to vote on the way home,' " he recalls. "At 5 o'clock it started to rain and gush and, oh, there could've been 2,000 people driving right by the polls."

Things looked so bleak the day after his second-place finish there, Dole called former President George Bush, partly for advice but also to reassure the party elder that all was not lost.

"It was just to tell him, "The sky hasn't fallen Mr. President; we're still very confident. We're going to get a break one of these days,' " Dole says recounting the conversation.

But the break didn't come in Delaware or Arizona, where Forbes' advertising blitz garnered him two victories.

"Then we had to hope for South Carolina," Dole explains in classic understatement, "and it happened."

Now, Forbes is fading, perhaps even preparing to drop out of the race. California Rep. Bob "Dornan's never dropped in so I don't know how he drops out," he quips.

At age 72, after a full day of campaigning, Dole is relaxed, sitting in shirtsleeves, surrounded by color photos of himself and his family. In fact, this particular night Dole is asking aides if they might pencil in a little "down time" for him to touch up his tan in sunny Florida.

"I'd like to have a half a day, like 10 to 1," he says, noting those are the prime tanning hours. "Have a little breakfast and then I just walk outside and _ whisssk."

(A half day looks unlikely, but Dole and Florida Sen. Connie Mack took a quick tanning break Thursday atop the stairs to the plane.)

When things were looking down, his Republican colleagues in the Senate rallied around Dole. They offered to write speeches and accompany him on campaign swings. It is the political version of the buddy system.

"They gave (Sen. Robert) Bennett the day off today so he could rest," Dole smiles. "They rotate them."

When asked who he turns to for advice, Dole mentions the senators first. Then, House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"He's got a lot of ideas; he's sort of a policy wonk," Dole says. "In fact, we talked a little bit last night about how do we prepare for the general election if it happens."

Actually Dole, who lost previous races because he lacked a long-term plan, has given a great deal of thought to the general election. He has 26 different groups of advisers _ businesspeople, staffers and lawmakers _ doing research on a wide range of issues from crime to trade to foreign affairs.

What he still seems to lack is a straightforward, coherent explanation of why voters should choose him over Clinton.

"There are a lot of reasons," he says, hesitating. "What we'll do is go down and enlarge on what we're talking about now. He vetoed a balanced budget _ first time in a generation _ welfare reform and all these other things."

Ever the legislator, Dole still wants to strike a budget deal with the man he hopes to oust in November.

"Now, if we could reach some good agreement between now and then, obviously we'll have to talk about something else," he adds. "There will be plenty of issues out there, plenty of things he said he would do."

He acknowledges he gets frustrated by the media coverage criticizing him for not having the "vision thing."

In a Houston visit Wednesday, he compared notes with Bush.

"He was always badgered by the vision thing," Dole says. "I think after it's repeated and repeated and repeated some people think you don't know what you're doing out there _ but I know pretty much what I've got in mind."

Then, in a firm voice he adds: "I haven't been working in the legislative area this long not to know what I think would make this place, America, a better country. A better tax system, a balanced budget, lower interest rates. A lot of these things may not be textbook or in the dictionary as _ quote _ visionary, but to me they lay the foundation for a better life for people. That's what I'm trying to do."

From the outset Dole's pitch has centered on his resume rather than his rhetoric. Although many urge him to brag more, he's reluctant.

"I don't think I've ever done that," he says. "You like to say you accomplished things, but you have to understand, in Congress you get a lot of help."

Even on nights like this when he seems at ease, Dole's mind is racing. He has trouble falling asleep when he arrives at a hotel room after a busy campaign day.

"I can't just jump in bed and say, "Well, I'm going asleep.' I've got to take my time, just relax, maybe watch something, read a minute," he says. "Some people can just jump in bed and go to sleep, but I'm not one of those."

Two weekends ago, at a nondescript hotel in Tuscon, Dole sat alone in the courtyard early one morning eating breakfast.

"I thought, surely the sun's going to come out," he says, remembering the day.

But even in those rare quiet times, Dole isn't unwinding. He's planning.

"I'm looking at the next event, who's going to meet you at the end of the (airplane) steps and try to remember where you are and who you know and have I called everybody," he says.

"You don't get many moments like that."