Reversing himself, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole on Tuesday said it had been a mistake for his presidential campaign to return a $1,000 contribution from the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay and lesbian political group.
Dole, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, blamed his campaign staff for the decision to return the money. "I think if they had consulted me, they wouldn't have done that," Dole told reporters in Washington. "I just didn't agree with what happened."
When the Dole campaign returned the check in August, campaign officials said they decided to do so because the Kansas senator's views were "100% at odds" with the Log Cabin group.
Until Tuesday, Dole had defended the decision to return the contribution, a move that was widely interpreted as a bid to curry favor with social conservatives who are a key bloc in the GOP. And Dole's latest comments served to reignite the flap initially sparked by the returned check.
In a rare moment of agreement, gay rights organizations and leaders of social conservative groups criticized Dole for flip-flopping on the contribution issue.
Rich Tafel, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, complained that Dole's statements have merely "confused the issue more."
Tafel said that Dole had resorted to "pure demagoguery" in initially supporting his campaign's decision to return the contribution, which was the maximum individual amount that can be given to a presidential candidate.
Now, Tafel said, Dole is trying to backtrack in the face of criticism that he was pandering to his party's right wing. "The story the campaign thought would go away in two days has been around for two months. Dole's trying to distance himself from it. Instead, he's given it new life."
Agreeing with Tafel was David M. Smith, spokesman for the nation's largest national gay and lesbian lobbying organization, the Human Rights Campaign.
"Dole received a lot of heat for what is universally viewed as a stupid move by his campaign, and that's what prompted [Tuesday's] statements," Smith said.
He said Dole is engaging in "finger-in-the-wind politics," adding: "This is what Americans say in poll after poll turns them off on Washington."
Ralph Reed, the executive director of the conservative Christian Coalition, joined in criticizing Dole, though from a different perspective.
Dole's Tuesday statement, said Reed, "sends a mixed message that is hardly helpful either on a raw political level or as a matter of public policy."
Reed noted that Dole had won plaudits from conservatives when, in a June speech, he blasted the entertainment industry for overemphasizing sex and violence.
Thus, Reed termed Dole's latest comments on the Log Cabin contribution "disappointing and unfortunate" because the senator "was on a roll after the Hollywood speech and was gaining strong support among religious conservatives."
Reed added: "It's the ambiguity of his stand . . . the appearance of a flip-flop that's the real problem politically. . . . The issue for Dole is: Make up your mind. Are you going to take money or give it back? . . . If you return money and appear to regret it, you really have the worst of all worlds."
Robert Knight of the Family Research Council in Washington criticized Dole on ideological grounds: "Dole still doesn't seem to understand that accepting money from a radical homosexual activist group is not in keeping with some of his family value themes."
Dole could not be reached for elaboration on his Tuesday comments.
In a brief statement issued by his campaign, Dole spokesman Nelson Warfield called the check imbroglio "one of the most over-hyped stories of the year."
The statement repeated Dole's earlier comment on contributions from special interest groups: "Because you accept money doesn't mean you agree with their agenda." The statement went on to say that while Dole "does not support the gay rights agenda, he also does not believe in discrimination."
The Log Cabin organization had contributed to Dole because, Tafel said, his record on some issues of interest to the group, such as funding for the battle against AIDS, was "not bad."
At the time the Dole campaign decided to return the money, Warfield said: "Our policy is to decline contributions from political groups that have an agenda that is in opposition to Sen. Dole's positions on the issues."