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Dole Sets a Punishing Pace in Coast-to-Coast Campaign

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The lights were low and nary a soul stirred aboard Bob Dole’s crowded campaign jet as it hurtled through the night, high above the Great Plains. The collective exhaustion was all but palpable, and for good reason.

About 15 hours into a hectic campaign day that began in Los Angeles, the weary travelers were still an hour or more out of Chicago, with an estimated arrival time of 2 a.m.

Suddenly, the well-tanned candidate emerged from the darkness of the plane’s first-class cabin, standing erect as always and still in his blue shirt and tie.

For the next half an hour or so, the 72-year-old Kansas Republican chatted easily with the sleep-deprived reporters, interspersing one quip after another with pithy comments on the state of the world, the country, the Senate that he will soon abandon, his campaign and even the NBA playoffs.

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In Chicago, after no more than perhaps five hours of sleep, Dole was up and at it again--settling into a wing chair in a 45th-floor hotel suite for a conversation with former Polish President Lech Walesa--this after taking nearly an hour to get dressed, slowed, as he is each day, by his crippling war injuries.

After the hourlong discussion with Walesa, Dole was off for another full day of vote-seeking that would include a lunchtime stroll along posh Michigan Avenue and end 14 hours later at a Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Cincinnati.

Dole’s rigorous campaign schedule of late suggests that despite his age, the Senate majority leader is energized and utterly committed to a full and even punishing campaign pace, one that is already sapping the strength of some in his growing entourage, many of whom are barely half his age.

“There’s a lot of energy in the campaign,” Dole said, evidently referring mostly to himself. “I’m committed to the campaign full time.”

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To be sure, Bob Dole is no Bill Clinton, who in 1992 sometimes finished a bone-breaking day on the hustings closer to dawn than midnight--and then sent for a pot of hot coffee.

And traveling with Dole day in and day out, one learns that his public demeanor can be bewilderingly unpredictable. In Ontario, Calif., on Tuesday night, he was a downright fiery orator as he addressed several hundred lustily partisan San Bernardino County Republicans.

Friday morning, however, he was lackluster at best as he spoke to the suburban Cincinnati high schoolers, telling them at one point that by staying off drugs, they can grow up to become farmers and housewives, among other pursuits.

Such moments raise doubts that even if he can dispel skepticism about his stamina, it may be more difficult to overcome a related age concern--that he is simply out of touch with contemporary times.

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Still, if Dole keeps up his pace--and barring some unforeseeable health problem--he may quickly lay to rest the core of the age issue, which polls have shown is a secondary but nagging concern among some voters and has certainly provided fodder for the late-night comedy circuit.

“I can’t believe it,” an elated Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) said Friday after flying with Dole from Cincinnati to Columbus, where Dole capped a week of cross-country campaigning, largely as a crime fighter. “He’s pumped. He’s really looking forward to the next event, the next day,” said DeWine.

After urging students at Sycamore High School near Cincinnati to shun drugs and leading a round-table discussion in Columbus with local police officers, Dole returned to Washington on Friday evening. During the week, he celebrated Memorial Day in New Jersey, gave a major speech on crime in Colorado, hopscotched through California and then stumped in Chicago, fitting in appearances at four GOP fund-raisers along the way.

In Washington, he has a meeting today with Mother Teresa and a speech to GOP state chairmen. Then Dole hits the campaign trail again, going to New Jersey on Sunday, Michigan on Monday, Virginia on Tuesday. And so it goes.

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At every stop now, Dole is going out of his way to press the flesh along “rope lines” erected for security purposes.

After speaking at a Redondo Beach, Calif., park for about 15 minutes on Wednesday, for instance, Dole spent more than twice that time shaking hands, posing for photographs and kibitzing with Southern Californians, young and old.

This is a conscious effort to mingle more with regular folks, Dole acknowledged. “You hear what’s on people’s minds,” he said, adding that he also draws energy from such contact.

In his more pumped-up moments, Dole displays a combativeness that has rarely surfaced amid the decorum of the Senate.

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As he emerged from a Sacramento fund-raiser Wedesday night, Dole was asked about the latest Democratic campaign ad that mocks him as “a quitter” for deciding to resign from the Senate. The senator snapped: “President Clinton knows Bob Dole doesn’t give up easily, and if he doesn’t know that, he’s going to find out between now and November.”

A problem for Dole that began surfacing this week was the appearance of scores of detractors--many bearing Clinton-Gore placards and pro-abortion rights signs--at various stops, including in California.

“They’re showing up everywhere. We’ll have to organize ours too,” Dole said at one point.

The Clinton campaign also continues to engage in a spirited game of one-upmanship with the Dole camp, each trading verbal jabs while trying to preempt one another. Repeatedly, Democratic aides are showing up at Dole events, offering detailed written rebuttals and critiques of his positions on whatever his theme of the day is.

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The Clinton forces outdid themselves Thursday night. As reporters traveling with Dole straggled into a motel well after 10 p.m., they were greeted by Democratic aides handing out responses to a Dole event that would not take place until the next morning.

Dole’s impending selection of a running mate also was a prominent topic throughout the week, and not only because the senator announced the appointment of a former congressman and diplomat, Robert Ellsworth, to create a process for screening potential candidates.

This week alone, Dole appeared with a number of such prospects. On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman marched with him in a Memorial Day parade in Clifton, N.J. Upon arriving in Ontario on Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Pete Wilson and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren were there to greet him. On Wednesday in Chicago, it was Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar.

The only surprise came on Friday when Ohio Gov. George Voinovich was nowhere to be seen during Dole’s stops in his state. It turned out that Voinovich was fishing in Florida on a long-scheduled vacation.

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Not to worry, Dole said he told Voinovich.

“I told him he’s in trouble if we go in alphabetical order.”


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