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Dole's doldrums

Now that New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato has gone public with his criticism of Bob Dole's presidential campaign, the rats have officially begun swimming away from a ship they think is sinking.

D'Amato is hardly his party's most respected sage, but many other leading Republicans have become openly concerned with Dole's continuing inability to get his campaign pointed in something approaching the right direction. When some of Dole's closest political friends are accusing the candidate of being cranky, unfocused, inarticulate and wishy-washy, the Clinton campaign can afford to save its breath for now.

Cranky? Not everybody can manage to provoke almost simultaneous public squabbles with Katie Couric, Colin Powell, C. Everett Koop and the milk industry. If this trend continues, we can look for Dole to try to jump-start his campaign by picking fights with Michael Jordan, Cal Ripken, Smokey the Bear and the cast of Friends.

Unfocused? Despite the best efforts of his handlers, Dole seems to prefer to spend his time talking about almost anything except the issues most important to voters. What are Dole's specific criticisms of President Clinton's handling of the economy? Does he have plans for the long-term security of Social Security and Medicare that are more realistic than those that stalemated the president and Congress? No one will know as long as Dole keeps allowing himself to be sidetracked. "There is no reason for a candidate of his stature and depth to be impaling himself on tobacco and the NAACP," said Republican Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma.

Inarticulate? George Bush was supposed to have problems with the "vision thing," but Dole's early campaign performance makes Bush look like Churchill by comparison. Dole's repeated inability to articulate his vision for the country's future is not a trivial matter. One of a president's most important tasks is to find the right words to say in times of national crisis. And inarticulate candidates rarely get the opportunity to become inarticulate presidents. Republican Gov. George Pataki of New York is just one of the many party leaders frustrated by what he calls Dole's inability "to create a positive vision as to where you lead the country."

Wishy-washy? This may be the most surprising and damaging problem of all. By flipping and flopping all over the place on abortion, assault weapons and other issues that divide his party's pragmatists and extremists, Dole risks tossing away one of his best potential issues. You can't accuse the president of inconsistency if your own stack of waffles is piled just as high.

Dole still has almost four months to right himself, and no one with any political memory would write him off just yet. But he can't simply sit and hope for a broader White House scandal or a foreign disaster. In the absence of an attractive alternative, voters may re-elect Clinton even if events turn against him.

The challenge facing Dole is clear: Get control of your party and quit letting loud voices on the fringes control you. Focus on the economy and other enduring issues and quit wallowing in trivia. Be true to yourself and start displaying the qualities of character that those closest to you admire most. Find an attractive running mate who is qualified to be president. And memorize at least one decent speech.

At this point, even all of those improvements might not be enough to overcome the huge lead the president has built in the polls. If nothing else, though, they would put an end to the flogging Dole is starting to take from leaders of his own party.