Dole Rolling Risky Dice With Huge Tax Cut Promise

WASHINGTON -- Bob Dole has put his political credibility and his hopes for the White House at stake with a critique of the American economy that many Democrats might have delivered and a bold but risky program that Ronald Reagan would have loved.

After months of debate inside his campaign, Dole emerged Monday having undergone a double conversion. One was from deficit hawk to tax-cut advocate. The other was from orthodox Republican to populist defender of the middle class. The shifts underscored the scope of the gamble he is making with a program that promises to balance the budget by 2002 and give people $548 billion in tax cuts.

But Dole's gamble comes as most of the latest economic news is good, and concerns about the economy more diffuse and long-term. Recent polls indicate voters, despite some financial uneasiness, feel better about the economy than at any time in years. More real to voters appear to be fears of rising deficits, and even if he can cut taxes without affecting the deficit, he also must overcome skepticism that the package represents something other than election-year promises.

Democrats relentlessly challenged him. White House officials charged that Dole's scenarios were even rosier than those Reagan used in the 1980s, and congressional Democrats baited the Republican candidate by urging him to have his plan analyzed by the Congressional Budget Office, confident it would be found lacking.

The Clinton campaign quickly put a new ad on television arguing Dole's plan "endangers" the Clinton recovery with a "risky last-minute scheme that would balloon the deficit." The ad will air in key battleground states at a time when Dole's campaign, after a costly primary fight, has no money to air commercials defending the plan.

A new Washington Post-ABC Poll shows that given a choice between balancing the budget and cutting taxes, 58 percent favor deficit reduction. A majority [53 percent] said they opposed a tax cut for the middle class if that made balancing the budget more difficult.

"That's the difficulty that Bob Dole faces," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "Bob Dole is saying what you really need is massive tax cuts. The voters, in public opinion terms, don't seem to be saying that's what we really need."

Even Republican pollster Jan van Lohuizen said Dole might be misjudging the tax issue. "From the point of view of the voter, the fact that a politician increased his taxes is more likely to lead to a 'no' vote than the promise of a tax cut will lead to a 'yes' vote," he said.

Dole and his advisers offered only a few specifics about how they would pay for the plan and will feel the heat throughout the fall on this score.