Addressing the Georgia Republican convention here last month, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole recalled going off to World War II as a young second lieutenant. "I thought I knew everything," he said. "I was unlucky and ended up in the hospital for a while."
The remark, delivered almost casually, referred to the fact that Dole, who served in the Army's 10th Mountain Division, was critically wounded during savage fighting in northern Italy. He spent 39 months in hospitals and lost the effective use of his right arm.
At 63, Bob Dole is a proud man, jealous of his privacy. But he badly wants to be President. And his ambition, as he bids for Republican votes in gatherings like this around the country, is driving him to put aside his personal reserve and explain himself as he never has before--even reflecting on the consequences of the combat wound that shattered his arm and reshaped his life.
The GOP Senate leader's vaunted accomplishments on Capitol Hill have helped his White House candidacy get off to a surprisingly strong start. But his advisers have persuaded Dole that to overtake the GOP front-runner, Vice President George Bush, the Kansas senator must define himself to the electorate in human terms and use that identity to make convincing his vision for America's future.
"He's got to make contact with the voters by revealing himself and his character," said his longtime Kansas friend and campaign chairman, Robert Ellsworth. "He's got to turn himself inside out."
And so here in Georgia, as he does in New Hampshire and Iowa, Dole talks about the hardships of life in Kansas during his Depression-era boyhood and later, in the early postwar years, when he served as county attorney in Russell County.
"We went through a lot of tough times, just like you've gone through hard times here in Georgia," he said. "And a lot of people didn't make it. One of the toughest things I had to do as county attorney was approve welfare claims--and two of those were for my grandparents."
For Dole, that sort of talk runs strongly counter to a natural reticence about discussing personal feelings in public. This attitude, fostered by his Midwest upbringing, was intensified by his war wound and the long struggle to rehabilitate himself.
But Dole recognizes the political necessity to surrender some of his privacy. "It's OK to talk about yourself," he tells an interviewer, "if you move very quickly on to other people and their problems and how you would be able to understand them because of your experiences."
An Abrasive Style
Whether or not he ultimately works out a successful formula for self-revelation, Dole has already cut a larger swath in the 1988 Republican race than many people thought possible. After all, his losing 1976 campaign as President Gerald R. Ford's running mate was noted for an abrasive style that was blamed for costing the GOP votes. And in 1980, completely overshadowed not only by Ronald Reagan but also by George Bush, Dole got less than 0.4% of the vote in the New Hampshire presidential primary.
Last weekend, looking over a crowd of about 100 people at a town meeting in Ames, Iowa, Dole quipped: "I never saw so many people all the time I was in Iowa in 1980."
But the subsequent years have been good ones for Dole. "He's mellower," said Ellsworth, "and much richer in wisdom and experience."
Has More Confidence
"I've got more confidence," Dole himself said. "I've been in a position of leadership. I've been chairman of the (Senate) Finance Committee and majority leader and had a chance to put my stamp on a lot of legislation."
At least as important, events broke Dole's way. The Iran- contra affair hurt Bush, who had been the overwhelming favorite, because of his ties to President Reagan, and raised questions about the vice president's own possible involvement in the affair.
Moreover, the debacle gave Dole an opportunity to move stage center from his position as Senate Republican leader and challenge the Administration's policies, casting himself as a spokesman for the public interest.
With the White House under siege, Dole was the highest-ranking elected Republican on the national scene who was free to follow his own political agenda.
'Shrewd at Using TV'
"He's very shrewd at using television," said Rich Williamson, a former Reagan aide and now a strategist for the incipient presidential campaign of former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt. Recalling Reagan's ultimately unsuccessful veto of the federal highway bill last March, Williamson pointed out that the same network newscasts that showed Reagan going to Capitol Hill to fight for votes also showed Dole on the Senate floor, urging Republicans to "stick by your President."
"That way Dole gets a lot of credit for being loyal to the President," Williamson said. "But he also keeps some distance between himself and Reagan and maintains his independence." More generally, Dole has used his extra visibility to contrast the Iran-contra affair with his own claim to "hands-on competence" and his willingness to deal forthrightly with difficult issues.
It is a point that he has certainly gotten across to a fair number of Republicans. "He's a hard-headed, practical man," said Victor Machin, a retired businessman from St. Simons' Island and a delegate to the Republican convention here, explaining why he supports Dole for the presidential nomination. "And he's going to make the hard choices."
Winning Over Minorities
More subtly, Dole's partisans contend that his demonstrated independence from the Administration would help him broaden the party's base if he were the standard-bearer. Dole himself talks of winning over blacks and other minorities to the GOP fold and cites his voting rights record in the Senate, where he helped push through the 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and was floor manager of the bill to create a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
To support his contention that he would be the easiest Republican to elect, Dole shows off poll results such as a recent Minneapolis Tribune survey that gave Bush a rating of 37% favorable to 48% unfavorable among Democratic, Republican and independent voters; by contrast, Dole was rated favorable by 49% and unfavorable by only 23%.
Dole and his strategists believe such evidence will help his nomination drive. "Believe it or not," said Ellsworth, "a good many Republicans are interested in winning the November election."
'He's a Super Guy'
One such is Alan Kaur, an insurance consultant from Bismarck, N.D., one of more than 800 Midwest party activists present at last weekend's GOP leadership conference in Des Moines when Dole and six of his 1988 GOP rivals strutted their stuff. Kaur said he is leaning toward Dole because "he's probably the only one who can get elected, even if he is too liberal for me."
Actually, it would be hard to find any acknowledged liberals who think of Dole that way. For example, he has backed aid to the Nicaraguan contras, legislation permitting prayers in school, and limits on federally funded abortions. Kaur said he fears Dole would support too much spending for federal programs, but added: "He's a super guy."
Not all Republican activists are willing to overlook disagreements with Dole, and some of them have not been pleased by his attempt to walk a tightrope between loyalty to the White House and political independence.
Putting Up Persona
"I'm not a Bob Dole supporter because I'm a Ronald Reagan supporter," said Billie Gilpin from St. Joseph, Mo., another attendee at the Des Moines conference. "I don't think Dole has backed the President as much as he should."
Such issues may matter more to party workers like Gilpin, who is secretary of the Buchanan County GOP, than to the average voter. To win, Dole's strategists believe he cannot rely on his voting record on Capitol Hill but must also put up his own persona for inspection.
"You have to show the capacity to lead," said David Keene, senior political consultant to the Dole campaign. "And you also have to reveal your basic values, who it is you are and what it is you want to do as President.
"A presidential campaign is like a painting," Keene said. "You start with an outline and then you fill in the details as you go along."
Dole's Humble Origins
Gradually, Dole is filling in the details to audiences around the country, starting with his humble origins in Russell. "We don't come from any family of wealth at all," he said. He remembers that his mother sold sewing machines, that his father ran a cream and egg station, and that of four children, he was the only one to complete college.
After the war, and his lengthy ordeal of physical rehabilitation, he entered politics and earned a law degree. Dole served for 10 years as county prosecutor, won election to the House in 1960, and moved up to the Senate in 1968.
Unmentioned in his campaign recollections is the fact that Dole has been married twice, the first time in 1948 to Phyllis Holden, an occupational therapist. That marriage ended in divorce in 1972, apparently because the pressures of Dole's congressional responsibilities pulled the couple apart.
In 1975, Dole married Elizabeth Hanford, a Harvard Law School graduate who had served as a consumer adviser to the White House. Elizabeth Dole has since become secretary of transportation, a potential candidate for national office herself and a considerable political asset to her husband, as Dole cheerfully concedes.
"As people were going through the line, many said they heard Dole was speaking, but they thought it was Elizabeth," Dole told a gathering in Lincoln, N.H., which his wife did not attend, and "a few of them left."
More Serious Vein
Dole adopts a more serious vein when he talks about his early life, suggesting that his experiences--the economic hard times and the war wound--have made him, as he puts it, "a very sensitive person when it comes to the handicapped and other vulnerable groups in America who haven't had it 'their way' all of the time."
In an introduction at the town meeting at Ames, Iowa, Barbara Grassley--whose husband, Charles, is the state's senior U.S. senator--called Dole "a man who has compassion, a feeling heart for the weak, the disabled and the poor."
In this way the candidate and his backers evidently are trying to undo the impression in some circles of Dole as hard and mean-spirited, a man with "a dark side," to use a phrase heard in Washington.
Ellsworth claims such talk stems from the 1976 campaign, when Dole served as the designated "hatchet man" for the national ticket.
Some people have suggested that Dole's war wound may have left a residue of bitterness, but he denies that. "Once I get my shirt on and my tie tied I don't think about it," he said. "I have to use a button hook to get dressed. If I ever get elected, there won't be many black-tie dinners."
His critics say the evidence for the negative impression of his personality stems from his caustic humor and his generally hard-boiled attitude, particularly toward those who work for him.
Dole makes no bones about being a hard taskmaster. "In politics if somebody isn't committed you don't want him anyway," he said. "It's a tough business. There's not much in it but a lot of work."
Wyoming Sen. Alan K. Simpson, Senate Republican whip, recalled: "I've seen him walk into his office at 9 p.m. and complain: 'You could fire a cannonball in here and not hit anyone.'
"I remind him that it's 9 o'clock at night," Simpson added. "But Dole says, 'Well, I'm here.' "
But beyond the questions about his personality, Dole needs to find answers to more substantive questions about policy. In his speech to the Georgia convention here, Dole attributed the loss of four Republican Senate seats in the South last year to the GOP's failure to get more than a tiny fraction of the black vote.
"You have to face reality in America," he said. "And reality is when you spot somebody else 95% of anything, you have a tough row to hoe."
But he offered no suggestions for attracting blacks, and when asked at a subsequent press conference what Republicans should do to get black votes he said only: "Start talking about it before the election. One week before, two weeks before, a month before. Let black Americans know that a Republican Party has been in vanguard of a lot of programs."
More broadly, there is the question of what Dole will propose to do about the budget deficit, which he describes as "the greatest challenge facing America and the free world." Dole boasted that "if you don't want to make the hard choices, then I'm probably not your candidate."
If elected, he added, "the first thing I'm going to do is to sit down with the leadership in the Congress and try to do something about federal spending."
The big question, of course, is what. But Dole is not ready to answer that question and he is not sure how much of an answer he will give, beyond acknowledging: "I don't think I can get by just by saying that we're going to have a meeting."
Ellsworth indicated that Dole will vow to make cuts, but will try to avoid being pinned down firmly on where the cuts will come. "Both the press and the other candidates will press us for details," he acknowledged.
"How will it all play out? I don't know how it will play out."