Liddy the closet liberal?
As Elizabeth Dole launches her campaign, some conservatives are questioning her commitment
By James Carney/Des Moines
March 15, 1999
If Elizabeth Dole has a shot at the Republican nomination, it is because of women like Bonnie Curzio, a stay-at-home mom and independent voter. When she heard that Dole was coming to Des Moines, Iowa, last week to announce her exploratory committee, Curzio bundled her 10-year-old daughter into the car and headed for the convention center. Curzio, 40, didn't know much about Dole, but she was drawn to the event in part because Dole is a woman--the first viable female presidential candidate in American history. "I guess that does make a difference to me, though I don't consider myself a feminist," Curzio said as she and 700 others waited in a jammed auditorium for Dole to arrive. "It would be historic if she won."
Dole is betting on that sense of history to move an army of Bonnie Curzios--women who might not otherwise vote in a primary--to lift her to victory over Texas Governor George W. Bush. But the former American Red Cross president and two-time Cabinet Secretary will have to offer more than personality and symbolism if she hopes to turn inchoate interest into real support. Curzio and others like her want to know the candidate's positions on the issues, but Dole didn't provide many answers in her canned, 25-min. Des Moines speech. If she had a theme beyond her resume, it was the nobility of public service--eloquent at times but loaded with platitudes. Her signature line--that Ronald Reagan's famous question "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" should be rephrased to ask, "Are we better?"--echoes Al Gore, who in 1996 began describing "an America not just better off, but better." And in what has quickly become her custom, the candidate fled the event without taking questions from the audience or reporters.
Dole's reluctance to define her politics has opened the door to critics eager to do it for her. Several leading religious conservatives have started attacking her--not for positions that she's taken (there aren't many) but for the apparent ideological bent of the staff members she has hired. Chuck Cunningham, former national-operations director for the Christian Coalition, zapped an e-mail to scores of top conservative activists in early March lambasting Dole for choosing Linda DiVall, whom Cunningham describes as "the left's favorite Republican pollster." Citing DiVall's past work for such "reliably liberal organizations" as Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group, Cunningham warned Dole that hiring DiVall "sends a deafening message to conservatives: Get to the back of the bus and shut up!" Dole has said she opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest and where the life of the mother is threatened, but die-hard conservatives worry about her staff's influence. Cunningham's Liddy-the-Closet-Liberal complaint was soon picked up by others, including Sheila Moloney, executive director of the conservative Eagle Forum. Moloney calls Dole's selection of advisers--with its emphasis on Eastern Republican operatives like political strategist Kieran Mahoney and committee manager Tom Daffron--"troubling."
Dole's team dismisses the complaints as nonsensical. An adviser says, "People don't vote for or against you on the basis of who your pollster is." Average voters may not, but to party activists, personnel is policy--especially in the absence of actual positions on the issues. When Bush put out word that he was relying on Reagan Administration veterans for advice rather than his father's circle, conservatives got the message and cheered. For Dole, who reads from the Bible daily and talks openly about her faith, the assault by some in the Christian right is a lesson in the often irrational bitterness that divides the G.O.P.--something her husband, who ran for President three times, knows all about. "Some of these people you can't satisfy," says the former Senator. "They're just out there to criticize. You'll never find a perfect candidate for them."
Or a perfect spouse. Bob Dole has steered clear of his wife's campaign. He was in Washington last week as she made her announcement, and he is conspicuously absent from a 15-min. political spot the Dole campaign is running in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the nation's most famous Viagra user is all over the airwaves anyway, in Pfizer commercials discussing erectile dysfunction, or E.D. The ads are dignified, and the former Senator has been praised for his courage in talking about a condition that may affect 30 million American men. But some conservatives, like Eagle Forum president Phyllis Schlafly, find the ads "embarrassing" and think Mrs. Dole should tell her husband to stop them. Even Mrs. Dole's campaign thinks he is off-message. "It's not good for us," admits an adviser. "Elizabeth has to talk about Viagra everywhere she goes."
Dole has another problem: money. She needs to back up her impressive second-place standing in the early polls with some serious cash. Bush has made that harder by scooping up most of the G.O.P.'s top fund raisers. Dole is still expected to draw wide financial support, but her refusal to put out a list of exploratory-committee members last week was viewed by insiders as a sign of early fund-raising trouble.
And yet, for all her first-round woes, Dole remains a threat to the Bush juggernaut. The mere fact of her candidacy charged up the G.O.P. and caught the attention of a nation more cynical than ever about its politicians. In Des Moines, Dole dropped by the Iowa state girls' basketball tournament and was mobbed by autograph-seeking schoolgirls and their parents. "She'd be the first woman President ever!" declared Shannon Anderson, 13, who sidled up to Dole in the stands. "Awesome!" said her friend Melissa Haglund, 12. "Power to the women!" Dole was smiling as always, but she must know that Girl Power takes you only so far. She'll need more than gender to get where she wants to go.
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