Bob Dole and his aides leaped to the tricky task of campaign damage control Thursday, as an innocent stumble on the campaign trail threatened to send the Republican’s presidential candidacy tumbling.
On Wednesday, the GOP candidate fell from a 3 1/2-foot stage onto a bank of news photographers before he finally came to rest in the dust of a Chico, Calif., ball field.
Hyperspin began at once to keep the candidate’s fall from gracefulness--which was captured on camera in vivid detail--from turning into the enduring image of a campaign already facing tremendous odds. That effort overshadowed all attempts by Dole on Thursday to make actual news.
Late Wednesday night, Dole’s press secretary, Nelson Warfield, declared to reporters: “This should put to rest the age question once and for all. If Bob Dole can take a tumble like that and hop right back up on his feet and deliver a great speech, he’s strong enough to be president and go a couple of rounds with Mike Tyson too.”
Early Thursday morning, Dole himself entered the act. “Don’t be afraid of standing close to the stage,” Dole told a boisterous crowd at a rally here on the famous Strip. “I’m not gonna dive off today. I was trying to do that new Democratic dance, the macarena. I’m not gonna try that anymore.”
Warfield went out of his way to make sure reporters wouldn’t miss the line. “You’ve got to hear this; he’s going to say something funny,” he said just before Dole spoke.
All this may seem strange and certainly far removed from the issues of the day. But as both sides know, campaigns live and die on small images that stick in voters’ minds--Gerald R. Ford bumping his head, George Bush throwing up in the lap of Japan’s prime minister, Bill Clinton getting a haircut while Air Force One sat on the runway at LAX.
And as the Dole campaign’s energetic damage control attests, Republican strategists are deeply worried about any intimation of infirmity on the part of their 73-year-old candidate. Some analysts argue that any such intimation would be deeply unfair.
If Dole’s fall becomes the symbol of his race for the White House, “it should be an image of triumph, not of tragedy,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. “He fell. . . . He got up. He went on with his day.”
But combined with his congratulations Wednesday to the “Brooklyn Dodgers” for a no-hitter, the tumble could reinforce public doubts about Dole’s vigor and his vision, said political scientist Marc Ross of Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia.
“The dilemma for candidates for high office is that when they engage in actions that confirm existing images, those are much more likely to stick,” Ross said. “Dole has done some things that fit with his obvious weaknesses, like what happened [Wednesday]. They will for many symbolize the futility of the campaign on the one hand and his age on the other.”
“It was like Jerry Ford falling down the steps of his plane; it just confirmed all the preconceptions we had--Ford is a bumbler, Dole is old,” said Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker.
“What he [Dole] should have done is leaped up from the ground and spelled ‘potato’ correctly,” Baker said, referring to the notorious gaffe by then-Vice President Dan Quayle that similarly fed into an existing public preconception.
After Dole fell, he quickly joked in his speech about earning another Purple Heart, this one on a different kind of mission. He shook an abundance of hands and, on the campaign plane from Chico to Las Vegas, made a rare visit back to talk to reporters and look at the “slide show.”
“My hair stayed all right,” he joked as photographers showed him the pictures of his accident. “I had enough hair spray on.”
In the waning hours of Wednesday night, hours after Dole’s plane had landed, Warfield summoned a small group of reporters to his suite at the MGM Grand Hotel to meet with an eye doctor who had examined Dole and attested to the candidate’s continued health.
Dole likely scratched his left eye with his finger as he fell over a loose decorative fence while reaching down to shake a supporter’s hand. The result was a sort of ocular bruise that showed up as a large patch of blood on the eye.
Dr. Rudy Manthei, who checked Dole’s eye with an ophthalmoscope, gave the candidate the kind of clean bill of health that cannot be purchased--and actually wasn’t, as the doctor is a Dole supporter and donated the cost of the hotel call.
“In reality, in looking at the health of his nerves and retina and blood vessels, [Dole] has got the health of a 20-year-old,” Manthei said in an interview. “I didn’t find any hardening of the arteries, which is very typical of anybody over the age of 60.”
Dole had no complaints of double vision, Manthei said, and there was no sign of concussion.
But the image of the tumbling candidate--who rose from the ground with the help of Secret Service agents--was splashed across newspaper pages throughout the country Thursday. The TV networks’ morning shows opened the day with the image of a falling Dole, a picture that CNN repeated over and over. By nightfall, the networks each featured the story on their nightly news programs, although only CBS again used the picture of the fall.
Times staff writer Eleanor Randolph in New York contributed to this story.