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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Elizabeth unplugged

Dole's New Hampshire debut, while scripted to the last breath, showed some nimble reflexes

By John F. Dickerson and Nancy Gibbs/Manchester

May 10, 1999
Web posted at: 10:12 a.m. EDT (1412 GMT)

TIME magazine

For someone who is obsessed with preparation, Elizabeth Dole had the worst possible training for a presidential candidate. However handy her Harvard law degree, her serial Cabinet posts, her frequent-flyer miles as president of the American Red Cross, none of those can make up for the four campaigns she endured as the candidate's wife, in which the first commandment is "Thou shalt commit no news and give no offense." Those campaigns bequeathed her the high name recognition and favorable ratings that position her solidly in second place in polls of Republican presidential contenders. So what happens now, when she becomes the candidate, and she has to make news or die?

"You're just waiting to get me, aren't you?" she said to the hive of reporters as she confronted a towering sundae with whipped cream and lots of nuts last week at the Dairy Queen in Manchester, N.H. As the candidate's wife, she could count on pretty pictures. But this was her Opening Day, and the lenses were aiming at her tonsils. "Well," she said, opening her mouth and leaping into the abyss, "here goes."

It was a "here goes" kind of week for Dole, who had sent another torpedo into the conventional wisdom that she is far too cautious to do or say anything bold and original. That came the night before, at a big G.O.P.. wingding, when she surprised even some of her top supporters by laying out a gun-control agenda that calls for full federal funding for instant background checks, outlawing all cop-killer bullets, upholding the assault-weapons ban and mandating child-safety locks. The speech received at least one hearty boo, and when it was over, the applause was spotty. "I don't know what she was thinking," said a perplexed resident of the state whose motto is "Live Free or Die." "Half the guys in there were packing."

And of course, the Dole campaign couldn't have been happier. "After the coverage we got for that," says an adviser, "I say boo us some more." Annoying ardent primary voters isn't necessarily the losing strategy that it appears to be. Dole is figuring that the folks who were booing were the ones who would vote for Pat Buchanan or Dan Quayle anyway, and so she's bucking the time-honored tradition of running to the right in the primaries and lurching back to the center in the general election. Her calculation involves some new math, based on the belief that her survival depends on drawing into the primaries some moderates and independents and women like Toni Pappas, who jumped from her seat and cheered, "You go, girl!" and "It's time for a skirt!" "For most women, guns are so irrational," says a Dole adviser. "What she did was just perfect for who we're trying to target."

The Dole campaign pitches its candidate's recent centrist moves on abortion (she's against it but says the debate is a "dead end") as being about inclusiveness. But in fact the real goal is to hone her broad, soft support (from people who know her husband and like the idea of a woman in the race) into a core group of people who might be inspired enough to actually vote for her (those who agree with her on assault weapons and abortion). "I'd rather have 25% who love her than 50% who like her," says a Dole aide.

In staking out that middle ground, Dole has actually proved more nimble than her main rival, Texas Governor George W. Bush. In the aftermath of the Littleton, Colo., shootings, he chose to sidestep the issue compared with Dole's confrontation in the lion's den. A well-timed trip to Macedonia to visit refugees has also put Dole where her opponents cannot follow. In some ways Elizabeth Dole is running the campaign she wanted her husband to run. He flirted with supporting the assault-weapons ban, then backed down when congressional Republicans howled. He did a long and awkward minuet on abortion and other issues of concern to social conservatives. "She's had to reflect someone else's views," says Mari Maseng Will, a top adviser to Mrs. Dole and former speechwriter for the Senator. "For a strong-minded, intelligent woman, that's frustrating. Now she's doing things her own way."

But if this strategy is going to work, Dole needs more than good trainers and stamina. However fleet her reflexes, broadening the primary base and launching a "movement" take organization and money, two things she has proved slow to build. She also needs to stir the fire when she faces the crowds of curious folks who want to take her measure. So far, too many are coming away underwhelmed by her roving, talk-show routine. But even that conversion may be in the works. In a speech last week, Dole took a playful jab at herself. "Some pundits say that I'm scripted," she said, "but according to my notes, that's not true."


Cover Date: May 17, 1999

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