The pundits have declared the presidential race a snooze. The public switched to the World Series. Even Republican leaders say the odds for a Dole presidency are about 100 to 1.
So what was Bob Dole doing last Sunday? Meeting with the head of his White House transition team.
"This is a man who doesn't give up easily," says Sheila Burke, his trusted chief of staff in the Senate for more than a decade. "This is somebody who has overcome extraordinary odds and at the end of the day, wants to be able to say he did absolutely everything he could do."
This is the end of the trail for Bob Dole. In nine short days, America's most durable politician will learn if he is to finish his long career with a stint in the Oval Office or a rejection of sweeping proportion.
At 73, he has worked closely with eight presidents. And even if it is a long shot, Dole is determined to be ready for the presidency if it comes his way.
What would a Dole White House look like? In short, very different from the Clinton operation. The faces would be older; the meetings shorter. Less glamour, more grit. There would be no profanity in the Oval Office, but plenty of sardonic humor. Decisions might get made more quickly under Dole, but they would also be kept secret.
If his tenure as Republican leader in the Senate is any guide, a Dole presidency would be marked by bipartisan dealmaking. If his performance as a candidate is any indication, it would be a disorganized White House with bitter infighting fueled in part by the boss himself.
"The positive side for him is great lawmaking skills at a time when we continue to need that," says Charles O. Jones, a presidential scholar at the University of Wisconsin. "The question mark is his capacity to appoint people and then use them in an effective way."
Not since Lyndon Johnson has a Senate majority leader become president. Although the two differ in personality and ideology, many say that like LBJ, Dole would be a president plugged in to Capitol Hill.
"Lord knows he has seen a lot of presidents work with Congress and he would be very effective at it," says lobbyist Bill Timmons, who rode on Dole's plane last weekend to plan the transition. "He knows virtually everyone in town and his temperament is one of consultation and conciliation."
Lawrence O'Donnell, the Democratic staffer who sat across the bargaining table through hundreds of battles with Dole, says: "He would be the best Republican president of my lifetime."
The reason is simple: Dole was an honest broker on Capitol Hill. He mastered the "politics of governing," the ability to "defeat someone at 11 a.m. and beg them for their vote at 2 p.m."
O'Donnell remembers a meeting in early 1993 between his boss, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Dole. Moynihan, then chairman of the Finance Committee, was charged with moving President Clinton's controversial first budget through the Senate.
"Dole said to us immediately, "There will be no Republican votes,' " O'Donnell recalls. The early tip was critical information for Moynihan, who often relied on moderate Republicans to help pass tricky legislation.
"That is crushing news but invaluable news," O'Donnell says. "There's only one person alive who can tell you, and he does."
Like LBJ, success for Dole comes behind the scenes. So most observers predict his campaign platform of lower taxes, higher defense spending and a balanced budget would be merely an opening gambit in his legislative bartering.
"He never believed in the tax cut, so dropping that foolishness would not be so difficult for him," says former Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas.
On the other hand, Rutgers University professor Ross Baker says if Dole were put in a room with Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu, he "would get some results. He has a well-developed sense of what constitutes an acceptable compromise."
Whether it's meetings or memos, the laconic Kansan doesn't want much fluff.
Most memos are less than a page and end with "yes" and "no" boxes. Sometimes he sends them back blank _ leaving staff to wonder what, if anything, Dole has decided. "Certainly it was not easy for any of us," concedes Burke.
In the Senate, he would call several meetings at once, floating from one to the next.
"Dole figures he can go in that room and do the deal in about 10 minutes," says Richard Ben Cramer, author of What it Takes, a biography on Dole and other presidential contenders. "The idea of him sitting around there listening to them kick it around is not going to happen."
Instead, Dole instructs each group to haggle out the details, drifting in with an occasional: "How we doing? Any progress?"
He kept track of votes _ as well as the idiosyncrasies of the 99 other members of the Senate _ inside his head. The stated reason was Dole's war injury, a blast that left him with only partial use of his left arm.
"He keeps things in his head because that's the source of his power _ knowing more than anybody else," Cramer says.
When faced with a problem, Dole would ask the first staffer he spotted to pursue it.
"Then, the second one he'd happen to see, he'd set him on it too," Cramer notes. "Then he'd call up three of four smart guys he knows."
No one realized the others were working on the same issue.
"So the only place all this information meets is in Dole's head," Cramer concludes. "The person in the room who knows the most has the most power."
A Dole team
If the criticism of the early Clinton team was that it lacked Washington credentials, a Dole administration would be replete with old Beltway hands, predicts Georgetown professor Stephen Wayne. "The average age of his senior advisers would be much older than this administration."
Dole has made no secret of his desire to recruit retired Gen. Colin Powell, for just about any job he wants. Other marquee names include Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Cheney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman.
Throughout his years in the Senate, Dole has relied on a cadre of loyal chiefs of staff, including Burke, Robert Lighthizer and Roderick De Arment. All three have remained close to Dole and were summoned for highly sensitive tasks during the campaign. And all three would feature prominently in a Dole White House. So too would several former lawmakers, such as Robert Ellsworth and Donald Rumsfeld.
Dole also has a handful of lobbyist buddies _ Timmons, Tom Korologos, Robert Strauss _ who might not take a government job but would always have his ear.
It is far less likely Dole would turn to his campaign staff for key executive posts, since he does not know them well and has made no secret of his belief that campaigning is a trivial chore compared to the intrigue of lawmaking. It is notable that the 10 people working on Dole's transition team are primarily longtime friends.
"I don't think he takes the position of campaign manager very seriously," O'Donnell says.
In the two months since Dole chose Jack Kemp as his running mate, the two have spoken about three times a week. They were not close before the marriage of convenience and have largely gone their separate ways since. That would probably continue, assuming the Kemp faction does not threaten Dole's interests.
The one person certain to wield inordinate influence in a Dole administration is a name that's rarely mentioned: Elizabeth Dole.
"She's kind of designated herself the message cop, the schedule cop," says Cramer, who says Elizabeth Dole has worked hard to massage her husband's public image into a warmer persona.
A demanding boss herself, the two-time Cabinet secretary and Harvard Law graduate says she will return to the Red Cross. But advisers say she will continue to weigh in on everything from policy decisions to Dole's travel plans.
Neither glitzy nor glib, Dole would hardly be a star communicator in the tradition of Ronald Reagan.
"The president has to mobilize public support," says Wayne, who sees this as a major liability for Dole as president.
But many say Dole's sincerity on issues close to his heart _ such as people with disabilities and prostate cancer _ would shine through. He also has pledged to give a speech at least once a month on the dangers of drug abuse, a subject that only recently caught his attention but has struck a chord with voters.
Dole tried to turn his mediocre speaking skills into an asset during the campaign, offering himself as a "plainspoken Kansan." It could work to his benefit in office too.
"If Dole came out and said there's something serious I want to discuss, people would sit up and listen," Cramer says.
Two weeks ago, as Dole's jet flew cross-country, his aides whetted the appetite of news-starved reporters with word the Republican nominee would get tough on Clinton's character. Get ready, they told reporters, for a blistering attack on questionable donations made to Democrats by an Indonesian couple.
Then, Dole's staff nervously waited, wondering once again, if their undisciplined, uncommunicative boss would follow the game plan.
They remembered the public back and forth over a donation from a gay Republican group. They remembered the day in May Dole was to give the commencement address at Gallaudet University _ a speech on disabilities that he scrapped at the last minute. Reporters are told they will have an interview with Dole, only to learn later the "candidate is nonresponsive."
He has lacked the discipline to "stay on message." He is honest to a fault, often divulging campaign strategy or blunt assessments better left unsaid.
Things reached such a point this year that his aides were intentionally criticizing Dole to the media, in the hope embarrassing stories would prompt him to change his ways. And it wouldn't be a Dole campaign without a few rounds of high-profile firings.
"Dole is simultaneously the best political tactician and one of the least strategic-oriented thinkers I have known," wrote Bill Lacy, one of the strategists let go last February. "As president, this would be a challenge. A chief executive has to set long-range goals and see that they are implemented."
In the insular confines of the Senate, Dole's self-reliance merely enhanced his power. But in a campaign _ and perhaps the White House _ the approach more often brings chaos.
"Dole's style is not conducive to organizational stability," Lacy says.
When Dole's jet landed in Kansas City, Mo., there was no mention of Indonesia. So the press tried to help him out, asking if he would like to comment on Clinton's ethics.
"I'd rather wait," he said.
It was another day of confusion in the Dole operation.
Dole's Campaign Promises
Reduce income tax rates 15 percent; cut capital gains in half; give $500 per child credit.
Balance budget by 2002.
Limit Medicare reductions to $158-billion over 6 years; appoint bipartisan commission to extend solvency.
Build 19 additional B-2 stealth bombers.
Build Star Wars style anti-missile defense system.
Increase military salaries; protect veterans' benefits.
Eliminate energy department.
Eliminate education department.
Eliminate commerce department.
Eliminate Housing and Urban Development.
Appoint commission to rewrite campaign finance laws.
End affirmative action.
Outlaw "partial birth abortions."
Let states experiment with school vouchers.
Born: July 22, 1923, Russell, Kansas
Education: University of Kansas, 1941-43; Washburn University, A.B. 1952, law degree 1952
Military Service: Army 1943-48
Family: Wife Elizabeth Hanford Dole; daughter Robin from a previous marriage
Career: Kansas House 1951-53; Russell County attorney 1953-61; U.S. House 1961-69; U.S. Senate 1969-96
Source: Compiled by Ceci Connolly and Katherine Gazella of the Times Washington Bureau