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Bob Dole was never one to surround himself with advisers. But now? They've got him surrounded

By Michael Duffy/Washington

(TIME, March 25) -- In the moments that have mattered most in Bob Dole's life, he has found himself alone. He was alone when he charged up a rocky hill to a German machine-gun nest, to be torn apart by an artillery shell. That experience took him to places where no one could help him. The surgeons could do only so much. His mother, who would have done anything for him, couldn't do anything when she came upon him hanging from the rafters of their garage by his shattered arm, trying to make it work again.

Twice before he has lost his party's nomination, and now that he is finally on the verge of clinching it, he finds himself again alone in a place he has never been before: in the finals, facing a formidable incumbent President. The new experience has left the Candidate of Experience "somewhat off balance," says a top aide, a little unsure of his next move. So early next month Dole is going to take a week off, fly to Florida, sit in the sun outside his condominium and then gather around him a group of wise men and women to think through the campaign. Just holding such a meeting is unusual for Dole, who has never been quick to seek or take advice. "He has no peers,'' says a top aide. "He has colleagues; he has friends. But all his real peers are dead. He's outlived them all."

Dole has captured one of politics' greatest prizes without one of the most important ingredients of any successful campaign: a tight circle of trusted advisers who can tell him when he's right, when he's wrong and when he needs to shape up. Dole simply believes he knows more about politics than anyone else. The last man whose advice he wholly trusted was Richard Nixon. "That was the only time I ever saw him sit up and sit still for more than 10 minutes and listen," said Tom Korologos, describing a trip the two men made to the sage of Saddle River a few years back. Otherwise, Dole has preferred to keep his own counsel and even make fun of anyone who tries to change him. When an aide recently gave him an advance text of a speech, the candidate quipped with trademark sarcasm, "Let me show this to my council of advisers." He pushes back when pushed too hard. When Senator Al D'Amato of New York urged Dole two weeks ago to attend a debate before the Texas primary--"You gotta go," D'Amato said, "you gotta go"--Dole teased, "Well, if you want me to, I won't."

After 35 years in Washington, Dole has an astonishingly small circle. He has a coterie of old friends, including Democratic Party viceroy Bob Strauss and Archer Daniels Midland Co. chairman Dwayne Andreas, but he does not seek their counsel. Other than his wife Elizabeth, who is an ad hoc adviser on nearly everything, Dole's inner circle is made up of Senators Pete Domenici of New Mexico, John McCain of Arizona and Bob Bennett of Utah, and even they say they are not sure what he absorbs. He taps experts on specific policy matters when he needs them--including his chief of staff, Sheila Burke, and adviser Robert Lighthizer--but does most of the political thinking himself.

Whether or not he goes looking for advice, advisers come looking for him. Two weeks ago, a group of Senators approached Dole and urged him to use them regularly as sounding boards. A few days later, they faxed talking points on trade and other matters to his campaign plane; Dole surprised them by using the material. Meanwhile, campaign manager Scott Reed has reached out to a group of elected officials, from House Speaker Newt Gingrich to New Hampshire Governor Steve Merrill, to help Dole sharpen his message.

People who aspire to counsel him have learned they must do it obliquely. Before the South Carolina debate in February, McCain urged Dole to smile more, and like a high school drama coach, he planted himself in the front row and smiled widely through the entire forum. Two weeks ago, Dole was diluting the emotional high point of his speech--his painful convalescence--by rambling on about other things, like Bosnia. Utah's Bennett, who was traveling with Dole, waited a few hours after one run-on speech and then pulled Dole aside in a relaxed moment. "When you've told the story of Russell," said Bennett, "the speech is over. That's it." At the next event, Dole brought the room to a hush with the story of his recovery; he was clearly "aching" to go on, recalls Bennett, but closed quickly with "God bless America."

Members of Dole's inner circle don't know if any of this advice will stick. When he returned to the Senate Wednesday morning, dozens of his colleagues were waiting outside his office with ideas about how to beat Bill Clinton. They grabbed him in the halls and cornered him at lunch and handed him notes, so that by afternoon he had to flee the building for a little peace. But if he doesn't always heed would-be advisers, Dole at least remembers what they say: it's a skill he learned long ago, by himself, when he couldn't write things down.


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