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Dole’s Ideas Often Stumble on Own Trips of the Tongue

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is poetry somewhere in this man’s soul, hidden beneath a thick shell of taciturnity. There is passion too, and conviction, fire and courage. But such traits are more often than not held prisoner by this Midwesterner’s economy of expression.

Bob Dole on California: “Big. Big. Fifty-four votes.”

Bob Dole on the one thing voters need to know about him: “Beats me.”

Bob Dole on what he would do to commemorate his departure from the Senate: “Just sort of leave.”

Then there are the looping, George Bush-like feats of mangled syntax, grammatical monsters that take the presumed Republican presidential nominee on rhetorical safaris into the unknown. “I was born, just like everybody else, here in a little town of Russell, Kan.,” Dole said in Bakersfield last March.

There is the occasional malaprop: “We are the boiling pot. We have open arms,” he said last week in Woodland Hills while discussing the nation’s ethnic mix.

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And then there are the off-the-cuff comments that get him into political trouble, such as the one earlier this month when Dole compared the dangers of tobacco to the perils of drinking whole milk.

Speaking badly does not necessarily doom a politician to the backwaters of the American electoral system. Consider former President Bush himself and his much-maligned vice president, Dan Quayle. (“If we do not succeed, we run the risk of failure."--Quayle, Phoenix, 1990.)

And speaking well alone does not a candidate make. If it did, the silver-tongued Alan Keyes or Patrick J. Buchanan and his “peasants with pitchforks” might be running for the Oval Office in November instead of the laconic former senator from Kansas.

Still, it helps to be able to complete a sentence when you go up against a man like Bill Clinton, who has proved himself to be no slouch at the presidential podium.

For many voters, who do not spend time researching candidates’ records, the words that politicians use and they way in which they use them are often the best mirrors of the office-seekers themselves.

“In this sense, a poor speaking style, which makes one candidate less charismatic or another more inspiring than an opponent, is worth something,” said Michael Traugott, professor of communication and political science at the University of Michigan. “It’s not the determining factor. But in a close election, it can have some significance.”

Some days, candidate Dole sounds as if he’s got it down pat, this exercise of running for president; other days make you long to drag the man off to Rhetoric 101. He tends to be better in the morning than he is late in the day, better at the beginning of a campaign trip than at the end. He does not like pronouns, is no friend to the verb. He has tried--and tossed out--the TelePrompTer.

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Said one California voter who used to back Keyes, in part because of the eloquent ex-State Department employee’s stance against abortion rights: “I wish you could take Keyes’ . . . ability to articulate and give Dole a shot in the rear end.”

Even though the investigation into the Whitewater land deal continues to nag Clinton, and what Dole calls “FBIgate"--the furor over the White House’s acquisition of FBI security files--is simmering away, the Republican is still 20 or more percentage points behind the president in many recent polls.

“He’s working against a fairly wounded and big target administration, and he’s still not connecting yet,” said Thomas A. Hollihan, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and author of an upcoming book about the 1996 election.

Since Dole announced last month that he would resign from the Senate to focus on his run for the presidency--to be “a private citizen, a Kansan, an American, just a man"--he has given his audiences some of the best oration of this campaign and some of the worst, soaring eloquence and plodding incomprehensibility.

His announcement, on May 15, of his intended resignation was perhaps his finest moment. It was short. It was focused. It was heartfelt. And it was written by novelist Mark Helprin, no slouch with the word processor. After telling his stunned colleagues--and the television cameras--that he would leave not only the office of majority leader but the Senate itself, Dole continued:

“But I will be the same man I was when I walked into the room. The same man I was yesterday and the day before, and a long time ago when I arose from my hospital bed and was permitted by the grace of God to walk again in the world.”

Some typically stern senators were reduced to tears.

“And I trust in the hard way, for little has come to me except in the hard way, which is good, because we have a hard task ahead of us.”

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Dole is best at times like these, the heartfelt moments when he projects a kind of “Norman Rockwell picture of the world and himself in it,” said Walter Fisher, professor and director of communication at the Annenberg School. This is where the passion comes in, and the conviction, the patriotism and the nostalgia.

This Dole voice comes across most often when he is actually out in flyover country, and it goes over best in just such regions, says Fisher. Evidence of this was Dole’s triumphant return to his Kansas home when he had finally locked up the presidential nomination.

On that icy March day, the town of Russell, population 5,000, crammed into the high school gymnasium for an emotion-packed tribute and a well-crafted attack on Clinton.

“It is my deepest belief that the coming generations deserve an America like the nation we have known. And it is my deepest fear that this administration is squandering an inheritance it does not value, undermining values it does not even understand.”

But then, says Fisher, there is Dole’s “dark side,” the scathing wit and edgy anger that surfaced in his 1988 run for the Republican nomination but have yet to bubble up too often in the 1996 race.

“When he gets tired and really challenged, he can come across as spiteful and shrewish and self-serving,” Fisher said.

Dole routinely excelled in his now-former haunt, the floor of the Senate. His June 11 farewell address there played well, at least for those in the chamber who intimately understood the insider anecdotes that laced much of the speech.

On the campaign trail, he seems to perform better when speaking in front of a throng of supporters than he does when he faces a nonpartisan crowd, a group of people about whom the jury is out, women and men whom this former prosecutor must sway.

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Kenneth L. Khachigian, Dole’s top California advisor, points to the candidate’s speech last week in Walnut Creek--theme, “Clinton’s war on California"--as one that shows how effective the candidate can be when playing to a friendly crowd.

“When the campaign gets going, I do think he’ll be very, very comfortable with his message,” Khachigian said. “A lot of what he’s doing now is taking the show to New Haven before you go to Broadway.”

So, can Dole’s speech problems be solved? Maybe. He is being coached more intensively by his staff. Better speech writing has already helped some.

He started using a TelePrompTer several weeks ago to help him on the stump. But the transition to this visual aid wasn’t smooth, and he stopped using the machine in the last couple of weeks.

As a result, he has not adhered well to his well-written scripts. At a luncheon in Toledo, Ohio, during the so-called Heartland Tour that followed his Senate resignation, he jumped around a well-crafted speech and left out the great ending, the segment that said once and for all why this man is running for the highest office in the land.

“I want to be president to return integrity to our government,” he didn’t conclude. “I want to be president to restore the vigor of our economy. . . . I want to be president to restore the instinct for decency to our national life and culture . . .

“Join me.”

Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

From the Lips of Candidate Dole

Here are some excerpts from Bob Dole’s campaign speeches:

* THE GOOD: “All my life, I have tried to defend and serve the America I learned to love in this town. What you learn in your hometown is very important. It’s how you conduct yourself, how you try to provide leadership, how you try to make a difference. And I know some debts can never be repaid. But I have come to Russell to acknowledge mine.”

--Russell, Kan., March 25

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* THE BAD: “Like a lot of people in this audience, the war came, and I went off like everybody else.”

--Bakersfield, March 23

*

“And I want to allay any fears anybody may have here. We’ll be attacked as the party of the big farmers, big business, big this, big that, big whatever.”

--Fresno area, June 18

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* THE FUNNY: “And I will not make health an issue in the campaign, even though my blood pressure is lower than Clinton’s, even though my blood cholesterol is lower than Clinton’s. I will not make health an issue. I wish he were healthier, as healthy as I am. . . .”

--Bakersfield, March 23

Source: Times Washington Bureau


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