Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole was telling another joke. It was the one about the five farmers who sat in the front row at one of his campaign events. On each of their hats was written: "Dump Dole."
"I put them down as undecided," Dole quipped. As usual, he got a pretty good laugh.
Dole, the Kansas senator who is chasing Vice President George Bush for the Republican nomination, is telling a lot of jokes on himself these days.
It is a disarming touch, wry self-deprecation from a candidate once renowned for his nastiness. Moreover, it segues nicely into one of Dole's main messages these days--compassion for poor, elderly and disabled people.
The humor is also useful in deflecting a question that goes to the heart of Dole's seemingly contradictory agenda: How does a staunch conservative, who promises to attack the deficit by freezing most federal spending, simultaneously plan to ease the pain of hungry and homeless people, upgrade education, improve child care and reform long-term health care, all of which he pledges to do?
The yin and yang of Bob Dole has perplexed audiences who remember his vindictive campaign style during the 1976 vice presidential campaign and who are aware of a voting record in Congress that puts him to the right of 80% of his congressional colleagues.
Are there two Bob Doles, one nasty and one nice, one conservative and one liberal? he was asked during a recent television interview.
"You have to play a role, whatever you are, Democrat or Republican," Dole replied.
In 1976, as President Gerald R. Ford's running mate, he said he was asked to play an uncharacteristically combative role. "I was the heavy, and I didn't shrink from it.
"I must say, I didn't think that was the real Bob Dole. I really believe now that I can set the tone. I'm the candidate, not the running mate. What I do and say is the real Bob Dole, where I am on the issues and what my record is."
Dole says he is still a conservative and says he does not see any contradiction between his philosophy of government and the social policies he is advocating.
"I believe I'm a good conservative Republican. I understand the need for government restraint. But I also understand we have an obligation to some people who are down and out or who are left out. Maybe, they get food stamps. . . . Maybe, they're cold. Maybe they're hungry. But, in America, we're going to provide for people who can't do it themselves."
Attempt to Pin Down Views
The role Dole is playing now, whether it is the real Bob Dole or some other fellow, continues to leave liberals and conservatives a bit confused as they try to pin down his views on a number of important subjects.
On Nicaragua, for example, Dole says he does not trust President Daniel Ortega, but he is also critical of the Contra leadership.
"I get a little troubled by the people living in plush hotels in Miami, saying we ought to send more money so that 18- and 19-year-olds can go out and fight. I believe in the freedom fighters and I support the policy, but I still have reservations."
He can be equally equivocal about South Africa. "I think apartheid is repugnant, but I'm not so certain sanctions are a good policy," he says.
In one breath, he can sound both bullish and skeptical about the Strategic Defense Initiative, the proposed space-based missile-defense system, saying he would deploy it "as soon as there is something to deploy."
Series of Bills Deplored
At one campaign stop in Iowa, Dole deplored a series of bills being sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) that would impose a variety of new responsibilities on private employers, from granting workers parental leave to raising the minimum wage.
"It's called mandated benefits . . . higher minimum wage, parental leave. . . . It all sounds great unless you are trying to keep your business together," Dole said.
During another speech, however, he struck a slightly different chord.
"I might be willing to increase the minimum wage a little if we had a youth differential," he said, referring to an escape clause that would allow the hiring of young people at a lower wage.
Dole says that reducing the deficit will be the first order of business if he is elected President. He says his opening salvo will be a spending freeze that will cut the deficit by $150 billion over three years.
At the same time, he is clearly not ready to say how he plans to freeze spending and pay for the social programs he is talking about.
'Got to Have a Concept'
"We'll tell you in due time. We're not going to give you every blueprint. A freeze is fairly specific. There are probably eight or 10 or 15 options that you could work on. . . . I hope to have a pretty good idea, a specific idea. But first you got to have a concept. You got to deal in concepts. I'm not running for the Senate. I'm running for President. And my concept is fairness; my concept is a freeze. My concept is reduced spending. We'll dot the i's and cross the t's in due time," Dole said.
For the time being, he may not have to be more specific. In Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota, where he has been campaigning lately, Dole is gambling that Main Street Republicanism has mellowed. And his message, delivered to fellow Midwesterners in familiar flatland cadences and full of personal reminiscences of hard times on the Kansas prairie, seems to be going over well. Audiences swell the halls, roar at the jokes and clap him on the back.
For Dole, preferring concepts to specifics means creating sharply contrasting images of himself and George Bush, the patrician vice president who was born into wealth and position.
'Started at the Bottom'
"I didn't start at the top and stay at the top. I started at the bottom, like most Americans," Dole says.
"I'd like to nail on that back wall there the Bob Dole record and the George Bush record," Dole said at a reception in Chicago this week. "It wouldn't take you a long time to read one of them. It would take you a long time to read the other."
"If George Bush can show that he has ever been poor, he ought to be President," Dole said on another occasion.
Then, there is Bob Dole's concept of himself--a skillfully rendered profile, echoing Mark Twain and the Saturday Evening Post, that takes the candidate's audiences from Dust Bowl Kansas, where he grew up; to the foxholes of Italy, where he was grievously wounded; to the county attorney's office back in Russell, Kan., where he had to approve welfare payments to impoverished farmers, including his own grandparents, and to Congress, where he has served 27 years.
This word picture may fog over certain inconsistencies in his platform but it builds a bond with the voters.
'Help From My Friends'
"You've all made it the hard way," he told one heartland audience recently. "And, if you haven't, you're still trying to make it the hard way. Or, maybe the hard things haven't happened to you yet. But they might. And if I've done anything in my life, I've done it on my own with a lot of help from my friends. And I don't think it would be too bad to have someone in the Oval Office who sort of got there the way you did."
With the polls showing him well ahead of Bush in Iowa, Dole is feeling good these days, good enough to joke about things that have held him back in the past, his temper and a reputation for lacking vision.
"We thought about having a vision-of-the-month club just for the media," Dole said. "They'd say: 'That's the wrong vision,' and I'd say: 'That's all right--I got another one.' "
End of an Era Seen
Dole can joke about it because he believes that more than vision and more than ideology, voters want someone who has been around and who can get things done. Dole is fond of saying that the era of the outsider, of presidents like Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan who came to their jobs from outside Washington, is over.
"I've been tested. I'm ready to go. . . . I know how to deal with Congress. . . . I believe in hands-on leadership." Hands-on leadership. That weathered cliche has become a staple of the Dole stump speech, followed by references to the prominent roles he played in legislation to bail out the Social Security system in 1983, to provide new relief to farmers in 1985, to extend the voting rights bill and to create the annual holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"Small-town traditional values coupled with Washington. That's not a bad combination," he says.