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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dole Makes the Fight Personal

WASHINGTON -- Just like Bill Clinton four years ago, Senator Bob Dole has taken the hill -- only to find himself at the base of the mountain.


Dole's continuing string of primary victories has cleared his path to the GOP presidential nomination. But as he shifts his attention to the general election, Dole again faces a sheer climb: a series of recent polls show him trailing President Clinton by as much as 17 percentage points.


Four years ago this week, Clinton was in the same position. At that point, Clinton and his aides focused on convincing the public he was not a packaged politician with questionable ethics, but a product of the American dream who honored small-town values of faith and responsibility.


Dole and his advisers are just beginning to formulate their message for the general election. But they also believe that emphasizing his life story may be one key to closing the gap.


The effort already is under way. Dole's powerful personal story of struggle and recovery from shattering wounds in World War II has become the one foundation in his often disjointed and verb-averse stump speech.


But Dole's political problems are in some ways more complex than those faced by Clinton four years ago.


Indeed, key Republicans are laying plans for a coordinated party wide campaign -- involving governors and members of Congress as well as the candidate -- that would attempt to enlarge the presidential election from a choice between Clinton and Dole into something more like a generic contrast between Republican and Democratic visions of government.


On the vision and direction front, Dole clearly has ground to make up. In a recent survey, the Pew Research Center asked Americans what single word came to mind when they heard Dole's name. More of them picked "pineapple" than "bold" -- and far more picked "old" than anything else.


Dole aides this year consider it a key task to connect his personal story with his agenda for limiting the size and scope of government. So far, Dole hasn't made that connection very clear.


He now frequently says his recovery from war wounds made him more sensitive to the suffering of others -- though he hasn't explained how that shapes his agenda of reducing spending and balancing the budget.


Perhaps the closest Dole has come to connecting his personal story and his policies is when he talks about the $1,800 his neighbors in the "hardscrabble" town of Russell, Kansas, raised to help him pay for the seven operations he needed after the war. In Dole's telling, the story becomes a clipped hymn to values of community and self-reliance that Republicans say the growth of government has eroded.


Yet it is not clear that excessive government was an impediment for Dole; indeed, he has spent virtually his entire career within government.


Comparisons drawn from the life stories of Clinton and Dole may serve the challenger more effectively. Dole frequently tries to transmute doubts about his age into an asset by stressing his "experience." In speeches now, Dole presents himself as a "doer, not a talker" -- a construction that tries to make a virtue of Dole's taciturnity and a burden of Clinton's verbal agility.


From that base, many party insiders believe Republicans will attempt to convince Americans that the Kansan is simply more trustworthy than the man whose job he covets.


Dole's challenge, almost all observers agree, is to convince Americans that he can translate his personal values into a public agenda that materially improves their lives.