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  •   Elizabeth Dole Hints at Presidential Bid

    Elizabeth Dole
    Elizabeth Dole after announcing that she would resign as president of the American Red Cross. (AP)
    By Dan Balz and David S. Broder
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, January 5, 1999; Page A1

    Elizabeth Hanford Dole stepped down as president of the American Red Cross yesterday and strongly signaled her interest in a presidential candidacy in 2000 that political analysts said could reshape the contest for the Republican nomination.

    "At this important time in our national life, I believe there may be another way for me to serve our country," Dole told Red Cross employees. "The Red Cross has been a glorious mission field, but I believe there may be other duties yet to fill."

    In an interview with The Washington Post following her speech, Dole insisted, "I have not made a decision" on running for president but said she would explore the practicalities of such a course with "the many people who have urged me to run."

    Close associates said there is a "strong chance" that Dole, the wife of 1996 GOP presidential nominee Robert J. Dole, will establish a presidential exploratory committee within the next several weeks and predicted that it would lead to a full-fledged candidacy.

    They said the timing of her departure from the Red Cross was dictated in part by the enormous fund-raising demands involved in a presidential campaign and the realization that she must start soon to be competitive with other candidates. Dole, they said, has been reluctant to explore a campaign seriously while still associated with the nonpolitical Red Cross.

    Republican and Democratic analysts said Dole, 62, a Harvard Law School graduate who held two Cabinet posts in Republican administrations, would enter the presidential campaign in the top tier of GOP candidates, if she decides to run.

    They noted that Dole, who gained political experience in her husband's three national campaigns, appeals to various potential constituencies, including Christian conservatives, the party establishment and some members of the business community. Her advocates also said that her work at the Red Cross and elsewhere gives her the ability to portray herself as a true "compassionate conservative."

    Some of her close associates said that as the first serious female candidate for president, Dole would have unique appeal. Asked if she thought the country was ready to give serious consideration to a woman running for president, Dole said, "Yes, I do."

    Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said, "I think she'd be formidable. The battleground in 2000 is going to be women voters. Not many people noticed it, but in the last election [1998], Republicans reduced the gender gap by picking up support among married moms and suburban women. And she will have tremendous appeal to those kinds of women."

    Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster who met with Dole after her announcement, said she is "not involved" professionally in any way but Dole's actions "today made it very clear" that she is ready to run for president.

    "This could be a really historic campaign," DiVall declared. "She changes the entire dynamics of the primary. She becomes an immediate top-tier candidate along with [Texas] Gov. [George W.] Bush. There's no question she can raise the money. She's raised $3.5 billion for the Red Cross. And many women will want to be involved in this effort."

    But other GOP analysts, many of whom asked not to be identified, said Dole would face significant obstacles if she runs. She could not count on support from many of the party leaders and activists who supported her husband, is behind other candidates in putting together organizations in such states as Iowa and New Hampshire and has to establish a clearer political identity.

    Robert Teeter, the veteran pollster who served as chairman of the Bush reelection campaign in 1992, said Dole "is a very popular figure in the country and in the party," someone who has the potential to attract supporters "who normally wouldn't be active in our nominating process."

    But he cautioned that it would be a mistake for her to assume that she automatically inherits her husband's organization and fund-raising network. "He was the front-runner," Teeter said. "He was the Senate majority leader. She will have to create her own cadre of support. But the advantage she has is that she is interesting enough so people will pay attention to her."

    Another GOP strategist said, "She has to take some tough stands on difficult issues that will upset certain segments of the Republican spectrum."

    Far from being intimidated by the rigors of such a challenge, Dole said yesterday that "the year I spent campaigning for Bob was the highlight of my life."

    Until now, Dole has been seen more as a prospective vice presidential candidate in 2000, and some analysts said they believed that still might be her ultimate goal. But Dole's associates said she would run to win the nomination if she decides to become a candidate.

    "She told me she wouldn't do it unless she was running for number one," said one Dole adviser. "She wants to make sure it's a viable option."

    Dole's departure from the Red Cross came hours before New Hampshire Sen. Robert C. Smith became the first Republican to file a formal presidential campaign committee, bypassing the initial step of an exploratory committee. "Americans want character and integrity from their leaders," said Smith, considered a long-shot candidate.

    With other candidates readying their campaigns, analysts and strategists agreed yesterday that a Dole candidacy would scramble expectations about the GOP nomination contest. But they differed on who might be hurt the most if she runs.

    Some said that Bush, who has been the clear leader in early polls, would feel the impact immediately because Dole also brings a well-known name and some celebrity appeal to the contest.

    Tony Fabrizio, a GOP pollster who worked for Bob Dole in 1996, said Elizabeth Dole had "turned off the cruise control" on Bush's campaign machine. Bush, in comments to Texas reporters yesterday, called Dole "a really good soul" who would be "a great candidate." But he said her decision would not affect his and his advocates said he remained the master of his own fate.

    Others said candidates such as magazine publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, former vice president Dan Quayle, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, who will establish an exploratory committee on Friday, would be affected more by her entry.

    But Brian Kennedy, a top adviser to Alexander, discounted that talk. He said Dole's interest in running "confirms what we've said, that it's a wide open race and that nobody has this nomination in their pocket."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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