COLUMN ONE : Bob Dole Is Back on Top of Hill : The Senate GOP leader is credited with turning his fractured party into a successful foe of the Administration. His new role could lead to one more White House bid.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The morning after the 1992 presidential election, the final tallies were not yet complete, but Bob Dole had already stirred the ashes of George Bush's defeat and found an ember of opportunity.

"Fifty-seven percent of the Americans who voted in the presidential election voted against Bill Clinton," the Republican leader of the Senate declared with his familiar growl, "and I intend to represent that majority on the floor of the U.S. Senate. If Bill Clinton has a mandate, then so do I."

On the surface, it was just another caustic comment, the sort of acid rain you would expect the notoriously sharp-tongued Kansan to drizzle on someone else's parade. Down deeper, it was more than that. It was a deeply personal declaration:

Bob Dole was back.

Back with a vengeance--as the winner of the 1992 presidential sweepstakes has since learned, and could learn again and again in the months ahead.

Only two years before his burst of gallows optimism, Dole's spirits had been so low that he seriously considered giving up politics. Bush's popularity was at its zenith, and the ultimate prize--the Oval Office--seemed forever beyond Dole's reach.

He faced the prospect of spending the next six years "carrying the mail," as he put it, for the very man who had demolished his hopes in New Hampshire.

Howard H. Baker Jr., Dole's predecessor as Senate Republican leader and his one-time presidential rival, was making buckets of money in the business world while Dole was left to endure the insolence of an entrenched Democratic Senate majority and the constant sniping of Republican up-and-comers.

Having established a beachhead in the Senate, the latter fancied themselves the future of the GOP and made no secret of the fact that they considered Dole a narrow thinker, a compromiser, a relic from the primordial, pre-Ronald Reagan past.

Finally, there was what he delicately calls "that little health problem"--prostate cancer, an aging man's disease. The doctors said they caught it early enough, but it was nonetheless a reminder that not even Dole, the survivor of a Nazi bullet that should have killed him, was immortal.

He stayed on, in part because Bush asked him to. And on the morning of Nov. 4, 1992, when most Republicans were mourning their worst setback since Watergate, Dole recognized that Clinton's election meant a new start for him as well.

If he played his cards right, capitalizing on his own vast store of cunning and the new Administration's inexperience, he could stamp his own form of tough moderation into the unformed clay of Clinton's domestic policies.

At the same time, he might be able to supplant the supply-siders--those who never forgave him for his role in turning back the tax cuts of the Reagan revolution in the interest of narrowing the deficit--as the dominant force in shaping the future of the GOP.

And if all that led to one last chance for Dole to seek the White House, so be it. At the least, he could get in some good licks in the game that had become his life.

His wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, the former Cabinet secretary who now heads the American Red Cross, says the last few weeks have been "a parting of the curtains. There's a window in time here, where people are seeing the real Bob Dole. . . . You see exactly who he is, and what he's really like."

Before Clinton could complete his first 100 days, Dole had handed the new President his first major legislative defeat, strangling a $16.3-billion stimulus package that Clinton had argued was crucial to reviving the economy. By the time Dole got finished with it, the legislation was portrayed as just another pork-laden budget buster.

And for all his recent protestations of moderation, Dole will be a formidable opponent in the future as well.

"Bob Dole has one overwhelming advantage," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "He's the one person in this town smarter than Bill Clinton."

Undisputed Leader

That may or may not be true, but at least for the moment Dole is the undisputed leader of a suddenly unified party, besting his rivals in their struggle for its soul.

Many of the old snipers from the Reagan and Bush administrations are now out of office. They can make speeches, write books and start their own think tanks, says Assistant Senate Minority Leader Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), "but any redefining of the Republican Party will be done right here, in the most vivid and appropriate way.

"What the Globe Theater was to William Shakespeare, the United States Senate is to Bob Dole."

Dole has even been making appearances again in Iowa and New Hampshire, the traditional proving grounds of future presidential candidates. He is cagey about his plans for 1996, though, and jokes that his travel itinerary is designed to needle his old adversary, Jack Kemp.

The question now is whether he can sustain the success and avoid the inevitable pitfalls. This city bores easily and needs to cheer a new conquering hero each month.

Moreover, polls show that the public already sees Congress as the primary culprit for "gridlock," the current term for Washington's seeming inability to act on anything that matters. Dole could become the symbol of gridlock if he fails to pick his fights with Clinton carefully.

But that, say some, is precisely where Dole stands above anyone else in Washington. In the view of Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker, he is the capital's most skilled guerrilla warrior.

"Bob Dole is not a champion of lost causes," he said. "He will wait for an opening, wait for an issue on which the President is vulnerable, and come out of the woods with guns blazing."

*

No one at the White House had gotten Dole's message that morning after the election, or if they had, they weren't taking it seriously.

When the Senate minority leader telephoned to congratulate Clinton on his victory, his call got no further than a junior aide.

Later, when Clinton made a grand tour of the Capitol, he had lunch with Dole and other GOP senators, but when the Republican leader asked that his staff be allowed to participate in what the President promised would be a bipartisan effort to reform the health care system, he was rebuffed.

Even when Clinton's stimulus bill had begun to unravel, Dole called him to talk about it, and the President kept changing the subject to aid for Russia, the next issue on his agenda.

Nor was Dole's own party showing much deference to its highest elected official. Dole won unanimous reelection as minority leader, but Republican senators rejected his handpicked choices for two other posts in the hierarchy, picking instead Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), both relatively young and both members of the ideological vanguard that was chipping away at Dole's turf.

Not His Time

Dole--assuming he now had what had been a traditional prerogative of the President--also offered McConnell as his choice to head the Republican National Committee. The committee said it preferred to name its own chairman.

Dole let all these slights pass. It was not his time, not yet.

He said he recalls now how one TV network anchorman advised him: "Americans aren't going to listen to Republicans for a while. We've got a new President. People are fair-minded. They want this President to do well, and it's going to be a while before your voices are heard."

"He was right, looking back on it," Dole said. "I thought that was a pretty good statement. I agreed with it."

At first, some of the conservatives argued that the stimulus package was not a fight they could win. But Dole had taken note of the fact that many in Clinton's own party were uneasy with the idea of boosting spending at the same time they were promising to rein in the deficit.

What cinched it, in his mind, was the ire he saw the bill raising among moderate GOP senators, the ones who frequently voted like Democrats.

"It was when the moderates jumped up in our first conference meeting and said: 'We can't let this happen. This is a fundamental difference in our parties,' " Dole said.

When Dole carried the subsequent battle to Clinton and won, Republicans were so energized that Dole is suddenly being praised in the very circles that had written him off in the past.

Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) once publicly blasted Dole as "the tax collector of the welfare state." Now, he says, Dole is "on the side of the angels. . . . He has thrown himself into filling the vacuum, and he is doing it very well. It's a role he has taken by energy and drive and intelligence and toughness."

Dole knows Clinton and the Democrats will not make the same blunder twice. They can add, and they know their majority is three votes short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster in the Senate.

"If he learns from his mistake--and one thing you know about Clinton is that he generally does--the next battle will be more difficult," said David Keene, a political consultant who has advised Dole. "But that's overbalanced by the fact that now Dole is a leader to whom these people are going to swear their allegiance, regardless."

So he will wheel and deal, pounce on some targets and let others go by. But unless the President finds a way to break open the GOP's ranks in the Senate, there may be more than a little of Bob Dole in many of Clinton's achievements over the next four years.

For a start, he will be a player in the mind-numbing game of hammering out the so-called budget reconciliation bill that is the heart of the President's economic plan.

Many of the key decisions will be made in the Senate Finance Committee. Dole is a member and former chairman of the committee, on which Democrats have an 11-9 majority, and he knows the playing field backward and forward.

Dole chuckles about how he recently saw Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) approaching a few Republicans to see if they could work out a deal on campaign finance reform, the issue that Dole has publicly identified as his next filibuster target.

The White House is also soliciting GOP input on its health care reform plan, with another round of Capitol visits and a "working lunch" on Thursday. "There's an effort now to bring us in. It may be a bit late," Dole said.

*

Clinton's stimulus bill was going down in flames when a group of reporters broached the subject of Bob Dole with Vice President Al Gore.

"Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding," the former Tennessee senator exclaimed, pointing to an imaginary alarm going off in his head. Gore ducked the question and abruptly excused himself, comically suggesting that he suddenly remembered having something else to do.

Those around the vice president do not find it so funny. "Bob Dole is evil, mean-spirited and nasty. Evil, mean-spirited and nasty," one said.

Last summer, Dole publicly accused the newly nominated vice presidential candidate of having shopped his 1991 vote on the use of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf in hopes of maximizing his television exposure.

"Gore favored the war in the Gulf, but before he voted, he came to me and said: 'If I vote with you, how much time will you give me tomorrow morning?' . . . Then, he went to (Senate Majority Leader George J.) Mitchell to see how much time he'd get if he voted against," Dole said in a television interview.

"He said: 'I'm anguishing over this, I've got to decide in the morning. I don't know whether to vote with the President or against the President. Can you give me 20 minutes of prime time?' Now, if that's commitment, it's a new kind of commitment."

Gore has denied the accusation, and one aide said Dole's charge "crosses the line."

Dole admits that he has a tendency to go for the jugular--and acknowledges that, sometimes, the vein he hits is his own.

Mean old Bob Dole, the Darth Vader of American politics. During his 1976 stint as President Gerald R. Ford's running mate and hatchet man, he was the one who made the venomous suggestion that "Democrat wars" had killed enough people during the 20th Century to populate Detroit.

In New Hampshire in 1988, he was the one who told a heckler to "go back into your cave;" the one who wrecked Bush's primary victory celebration by snarling: "Stop lying about my record."

Humor Has an Edge

Even his humor has an edge. Often, it's not what he says, but rather a cocked eyebrow, a twitch, a roll of the eyes that delivers the punch in the punch line.

Yet many will swear that Dole is one of the most compassionate people in government. It is rooted in an empathy that wells from the trials of his own life, friends say.

"My Democratic activist friends are shocked to discover that Dole is one of the two authors of the food stamp program," said former Democratic Party Chairman John C. White. Indeed, he says, Dole brokered the deal that brought together the fragile coalition of urban and rural lawmakers that made the Great Society program possible.

Of course, the idea of more people eating is a boon to the farmers of Dole's home state. But the senator also has had more than a nodding acquaintance with the humiliation of poverty. He spent the Depression living in the basement of his own home, into which his family had moved so it could rent out the rest and pay the mortgage.

As the Russell County attorney in the 1950s, he had to sign welfare checks for his own grandparents.

His apparent escape from his bout with prostate cancer has made him a zealot on the subject of early detection. He set up booths offering free screening tests at the Republican National Convention and Kansas State Fair.

Movie director Frank Perry, who is fighting the disease himself, compares what Dole is doing to how former First Lady Betty Ford brought breast cancer out of the shadows and made it something people could talk about.

Thursday night, Dole hosted a meeting of Us Too, a support group where men who have had prostate cancer treatment can discuss such problems as incontinence and impotence.

"Some of these things we read about don't return quite as quickly as advertised," Dole said with a knowing look that cracked the guys up.

Some of his friends say they believe that the cancer has shifted Dole's focus and mellowed him. "He's quite a different guy today than he was in 1988," said former GOP Sen. Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, who was at Dole's side the night his presidential bid crumbled.

However, it was another, earlier dance with death that truly defined Dole: The wound he suffered in the waning months of World War II cost him the use of his right arm and his dream of becoming a doctor.

Once his town's proudest and most promising athlete, he spent three years in Army hospitals and had to learn to walk all over again, just like a baby. Now active in many causes benefiting the handicapped, Dole also runs a foundation that funds innovative programs for employing the disabled.

Deep Misgivings

Dole lives with physical limitations every day, and because of his propensity to relate to issues and people in personal terms, some believe they discern in him deep misgivings about the current President, based on Clinton's avoidance of military service during the Vietnam War.

At one point during the controversy over allowing gays in the military, Dole surrounded himself with two dozen representatives of veterans organizations who opposed lifting the ban. Clinton, he said, should listen to them because "these are men who have had the experience, unlike the experience President Clinton did not have, in the military."

Could it be that Dole does not consider the President his moral equal? Keene, for one, says he thinks so.

"Among the political true believers, the ideological types on both sides, Dole is seen simply as a maneuverer, and that simply is not true. . . . He's as principled as anybody that's ever been sworn in up there," Keene said.

"He can respect somebody who disagrees with him, but if he sees somebody he thinks just doesn't have any anchor, that makes him mad. That's what he saw in Gore, and while he wouldn't admit it, to a lesser extent, that was his concern about Bush. I think he now senses that about Clinton."

*

The patio chairs look out of place next to the Capitol's Corinthian columns, but it is easy to understand why this outdoor balcony, a few steps away from the Senate chamber, is one of Dole's favorite spots.

As he settles in for a few minutes of maintenance on that perpetual tan, the afternoon sun washes over the tulip beds below; a thin haze puts the distant monuments to great presidents slightly out of focus.

"I guess I made the right choice," he said of his decision not to quit.

Those who know him say they believe that there never really was much of a choice. The Senate is as much a part of Bob Dole, they say, as he of it. But that, perhaps, is also why he never got very far in his national campaigns.

Call it the Senate curse, the idea that presidents are not made of the same stuff as legislators.

Of the legions who have offered themselves for the White House, only two senators in U.S. history have managed to make the leap directly from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other.

And those two, to put it charitably, never seemed to have their hearts in the legislative process. Warren G. Harding's greatest accomplishments on Capitol Hill seem to have been limited to Senate card games; John F. Kennedy is said to have worn his golf shoes into the chamber.

The 'Rallying Point'

It's far too early to start handicapping the next presidential election. At 69--Dole will be 73 when 1996 rolls around--it would seem that his presidential season has passed.

"Bob Dole is in a very real sense a safe rallying point for all the other people who would rather not have secondary-level presidentitis break out too quickly. Dole is an interim big cheese here," said conservative commentator Kevin Phillips. "You don't have to worry about him taking the ball and going all the way. At least, the odds are against it."

Still, he has the appearance and energy of a man at least a decade younger. And Simpson quotes another famous Capitol Hill wit on the subject of the White House bug: "(Former Rep.) Mo Udall always said the only way to get it out of your system is with embalming fluid."

Dole's opponents say that was precisely the factor they failed to take into account when they pitched the stimulus bill.

Snapped White House political director Rahm Emmanuel: "Yeah, we made a miscalculation. Nobody knew Bob Dole was going to start running for President within the first hundred days."

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