Dole's Strategy Reflects Years as Law Tactician

MONTGOMERY, Alabama -- For 35 years, Bob Dole honed his skills on Capitol Hill as one of Washington's best legislative tacticians, and his campaign in these final months of his bid for the White House resembles nothing so much as a mad scramble to broker a deal before adjournment.

If there has been an overarching strategic plan to the Dole campaign, it would be difficult to discern, given the zigs and zags the Republican nominee has pursued these past few weeks. To be fair to Dole and his team, few Republicans have a better idea for how Dole could have put himself into contention against President Bill Clinton, given the state of the economy and the strength of Clinton's approval ratings.

But that does little to reassure other Republicans that Dole's team has had a consistent or clear sense of how to make the fight against the president. And the campaign's latest gamble -- campaign manager Scott Reed's unsuccessful visit to Dallas to persuade Ross Perot to quit the race and endorse Dole -- has triggered a renewed sense of concern among Republicans outside the campaign circle.

In the end, presidential campaigns reflect their candidate more than all the maneuvering of the handlers and advisers, and other Republicans believe Dole's campaign this fall has reflected the mind-set of a legislative tactician, not the strategic impulses of most candidates who have made it to the White House.

"You have an inept campaign that has no forceful means of dealing with Dole -- maybe by design," one Republican strategist complained Thursday. "You have to look to the legislative means of operation, which is to take advantage of opportunities as they exist." The strategist added, "It's all tactical, not strategic. This is a campaign where tactics have replaced strategy."

Seen in that light, Dole's campaign the past few months perhaps begins to make more sense. First, there was the proposal for a 15 percent cut in income tax rates, with which Dole turned his back on two decades of opposition to supply-side economics. In rapid succession, came the assault on Clinton for rising teen drug use; the attack on Clinton as "liberal, liberal, liberal;" the message of "trust, trust, trust." And then, for much of the past week, the campaign seized on Clinton's character and ethics and campaign finances.

Looking at the electoral map, there has been a similar sense of opportunism rather than strategic discipline. First there was the plan to make the Midwest the principal battleground of the fall campaign, then last week there was the shift to make California the focal point of the final two weeks.

Tom Rath, the Republican national committeeman from New Hampshire, said the overture to Perot represented the classic move of a legislative power broker, the kind of closed-door negotiation of someone willing to offer a rival something he wants -- in this case more talk about campaign finance reform -- in return for the rival's support. "It's the kind of thing you would do in the Senate," he said, adding later, "This is the instinct of a closer, somebody who's used to saying, 'What do we need to make this thing work?'"