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In Texas, Dole Tells Vets Defense Is ‘No. 1 Priority’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steering clear of the abortion debate that roiled Texas’ GOP convention last weekend, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole sounded a patriotic note Saturday, telling a sympathetic crowd of U.S. war veterans that an ironclad national defense should be “our No. 1 priority.”

Dole, whose proposal to moderate the GOP platform’s abortion plank has come under fire from religious conservatives, seemed happy to be back on comfortable turf, digressing from his prepared remarks to wax fondly about the themes he holds most dear: “liberty and freedom and duty and honor and God and country.”

“This is what America is all about,” said Dole, addressing the 76th annual convention of the Texas chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “It’s right here. It’s in this room. You’re it. You’re the real America.”

Drawing a page from Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy text, Dole outlined a vision of America on “a mission of influence without conquest . . . not with imperial ambitions, but with American ideals.” He said the country’s preeminence on the world stage depends on “power and purpose and engagement.” And he expressed dismay at reported veiled threats by Chinese officials of a nuclear attack on Los Angeles if the United States became involved in Beijing’s recent dispute with Taiwan.

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“The sobering truth is that if a nuclear missile were fired at Los Angeles or Dallas or any other American city, we would be unable to shoot it down because we don’t have the technology,” said Dole, adding that he was committed to developing a national missile-defense system, first proposed during the Reagan administration.

“We can afford it, and we can do it, and indeed we cannot afford not to,” the former senator said.

Dole--wearing his “life member” VFW cap from Post 6240 in Russell, Kan.--also took advantage of the moment to reminisce about his own military experience in World War II, which left him critically injured and transformed him into a hometown hero.

It was a time, he said, when people took pride in the Stars and Stripes, when they understood the meaning of the 4th of July, when the failure to doff one’s hat as the flag passed in a parade could result in “quite an altercation there on Main Street.”

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“There’s nothing very complicated or flashy about me,” said Dole, adding that those values he learned to cherish half a century ago are the same ones that shape his vision of 21st century America. “I’m so dull, I hear somebody at the White House fell asleep reading my FBI file,” he said, taking a jab at President Clinton over the controversy surrounding the alleged misuse of FBI files by White House staffers.

Dole’s reception at the VFW convention was far friendlier than the internecine revolt that his campaign suffered last weekend at the state GOP convention in San Antonio. Upset over his proposal to insert a “declaration of tolerance” in the party’s platform, religious conservatives ousted many of Dole’s handpicked delegates to the GOP national convention in San Diego, replacing them with Christian activists who pledged to fight any weakening of the GOP’s antiabortion stance.

They also condemned one of their own Republican leaders, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, nearly denying her a spot on an at-large slate of delegates because of her support for restricted abortion rights.

In meetings with the Houston Chronicle and Dallas Morning News on Friday, Dole described Hutchison’s critics as a small minority who don’t reflect the views of most Republican voters.

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In a symbolic gesture, Dole appeared at the VFW convention with Hutchison at his side, a move that is likely to upset those who responded with hisses and jeers after party leaders at the state convention ruled that she had survived the vote to exclude her from the Lone Star State’s delegation.

Although Hutchison did not address the VFW gathering, Dole introduced her as “my good friend” and praised her work in Congress on national security issues.

Later in the day, Dole traveled to a GOP rally in Knoxville, Tenn., where he again accused Clinton of broken promises on welfare reform and the balanced budget.

“We’re working on our agenda now and it’ll be announced either at the convention, or shortly before or shortly after,” Dole said, referring to the Republican National Convention in August.

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Times wire services contributed to this story.


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