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Dole Takes Heat for Skipping GOP Debate

From Associated Press

Republican candidates--absent front-runner Bob Dole--kicked off the 1996 presidential campaign year by ganging up on their nemesis for deciding to skip a head-to-head debate Saturday. Dole said from afar he regretted that “I can’t be there to get beat up on.

“But I’ve got an obligation. I think it’s fairly clear-cut where my obligation lies,” he said in a telephone interview with Associated Press from his plane as he returned to Washington for evening budget talks.

Dole, who had been campaigning in Iowa, is expected to be a target for rivals during the year’s first nationally televised presidential debate.

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“He will get hit pretty hard,” commentator and candidate Patrick J. Buchanan predicted.

Said former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander: “It’s really an outrageous position for him to take.”

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Dole, who enjoys a comfortable lead in the polls here, decided to keep earlier commitments in Iowa instead, drawing 10 Republican governors to a Des Moines rally in a show of political strength and organization.

“I think if I were there [at the debate] instead of where I’m supposed to be, I think I’d be beat up by the American people and by the Democrats,” Dole said. “I regret I can’t be there to get beat up on.”

Six contenders agreed to take part in the debate at the state fairgrounds. Sponsored by the state GOP, the event before an audience of 2,000 party enthusiasts was to be carried live on Cable News Network.

Although their candidate was a thousand miles away, Dole supporters planned a late-afternoon rally in South Carolina. And Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas--Dole’s main competitor here--scheduled a rival assembly.

Gramm, whose come-from-behind strategy calls for primary victories throughout the South and the West, calls South Carolina a must-win state.

State party Chairman Henry McMaster said: “We think whoever wins the South Carolina primary on March 2 will go on and win the other Southern primaries.”

A fierce new Gramm attack ad--reviving George Bush’s 1988 television ad portraying Dole as “Senator Straddle"--was already airing here. Dole spokesman Nelson Warfield called the attack “cowardly, but typical.”

Gramm and other GOP candidates have been hitting Dole hard for cutting deals with Democrats in Washington to get federal workers back on the job during ongoing balanced-budget talks.

“We had an opportunity to stand our ground and Bob Dole lost his nerve,” Gramm said Saturday at a campaign stop in Iowa. “He lost his nerve and caved in. I am not going to lose my nerve.”

Dole, who has been mired in high-level negotiations in Washington and hasn’t spent much time on the campaign trail, was an easy target for the others in what promised to shape up as a shadow-boxing event.

Campaigning earlier Saturday in a restaurant in Marietta, Ga., Alexander said that if Dole “wanted to be president of the United States instead of Washington, he’d be in South Carolina tonight.”

“If we nominate Bob Dole, the message is . . . we’re not only to lose the presidency, we’re going to lose the House and we’re going to have a speaker named Gephardt,” the former education secretary said, referring to House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Buchanan, in a brief interview as he prepared for the debate, said that Dole’s no-show decision made him a natural target. “I think Dole will be hit pretty hard for his absence,” he said.

He said the format--allowing questions from members of the audience and the candidates--could lead to a “lot of fireworks,” although he said the one-hour length wouldn’t give anyone much time to express individual views.

Dole has support from most of the state’s Republican hierarchy, including Gov. David Beasley. But Gramm campaign officials predict that the Texan has more appeal with the party’s rank-and-file members.

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Even so, a survey of probable GOP voters taken by Mason-Dixon last week for the State newspaper and WIS-TV, both in Columbia, showed Dole with 40% support, Gramm at 17% and magazine heir Steve Forbes at 14%. The margin of error was 5 percentage points.

Forbes and Gramm are the only GOP candidates so far to run TV ads in South Carolina.

Forbes, a publishing heir who has spent about $7 million on his own campaign so far, backed out of the Columbus debate at the last minute. Aides said he did not want to participate if Dole did not.

Candidates scheduled on the platform included Gramm, Buchanan, Alexander, Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, former State Department official Alan Keyes and Illinois businessman Morry Taylor.


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