Dole Takes Key Step Toward Joining '96 Presidential Race : Politics: Senate GOP leader establishes exploratory committee. Democrats formally announce their management team.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Opening a new stage in the embryonic race for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) Thursday took a critical step toward formally entering the contest.

Dole, who has led national surveys testing support among Republicans for the 1996 nomination, filed papers with the Federal Election Commission establishing a presidential exploratory committee that will allow him to immediately begin raising money for the race. Presidential candidates routinely form such committees as a prelude to formally joining the race.

Dole indicated that he would not announce a final decision on whether to seek the nomination until late March or early April. But in an interview Wednesday, he said: "I don't see anything that would preclude the next step."

Meanwhile, the White House on Thursday evening formally put in place its new management team for the Democratic National Committee, which not only suffered historic losses in 1994 but ended the year deep in debt. In an unusual arrangement, President Clinton decided to divide power at the committee between Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd and veteran South Carolina political operative Don Fowler.

Most Democrats expect Dodd, who was named general chairman, to function as a chief party spokesman while Fowler, who was given the title of national chairman, handles day-to-day committee operations. But one well-connected Democratic consultant close to Dodd insisted that he would not be a figurehead. "Dodd is going to be a factor," the consultant said.

In the long run, the announcement of the new Democratic team may have less impact on Clinton's political fate than Dole's decision to move toward the 1996 race.

Dole would begin a 1996 contest with name recognition, national visibility and a fund-raising network unequaled by any of his competitors.

But in unsuccessful bids for the GOP nomination in 1980 and 1988 Dole had difficulty translating his mastery of the legislative process into a thematic appeal that could attract large numbers of voters. And by the time the first Republicans go to the polls next February in Iowa and New Hampshire, Dole will be 72, much older than any of his competitors.

Still, Dole has proven himself a vigorous campaigner, and no one underestimates his potential impact--particularly in a party that historically has tended to nominate the front-runner. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who has been most tenacious in organizing support for the 1996 contest, said last weekend that Dole would be "the favorite" if he joins the field.

Beyond his age, Dole also faces ideological hurdles. By any objective measure, Dole is a conservative politician, and he functioned as an ardent partisan opponent of Clinton during the last two years. But some conservatives consider him too willing to compromise on issues like taxes in the name of reaching legislative agreements.

Those doubts helped sink Dole's 1988 campaign in New Hampshire, after he defeated then-Vice President George Bush in Iowa. Potential competitors wasted no time Thursday signaling that they may challenge Dole's conservative credentials again in 1996.

Dole's announcement is likely to accelerate the pace of the developing Republican contest.

So far, only Gramm has filed papers with the FEC establishing a presidential committee. He has indicated that he will formally announce his candidacy in Texas on Feb. 24. Former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander plans to file papers with the FEC next week and to announce his candidacy by early March.

Despite his recent health problems, former Vice President Dan Quayle also has committed to running and is planning an announcement this spring, aides said. Moderate Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, a staunch conservative, also have been exploring the race.

In the interview, Dole predicted that his announcement would increase pressure on other potential candidates who have not decided whether to run. That list includes several governors, from California's Pete Wilson to William F. Weld of Massachusetts, as well as former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp.

Facing growing consternation from supporters about his refusal to commit to the race, Kemp is scheduled to meet Friday in Washington with political advisers.

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