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  •   Dole Evokes Reagan Legacy in N.H.

    Elizabeth Dole, AP
    Elizabeth Dole signs an autograph at a dinner in Manchester, N.H., where she gave the keynote address Monday. (AP)
    By Terry M. Neal
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, February 9, 1999; Page A2

    MANCHESTER, N.H., Feb. 8 Elizabeth Hanford Dole traveled to the state that will hold the nation's first primary in one year and declared herself a "lieutenant in Reagan's army" in a speech designed to build support for her as a Republican presidential candidate for 2000.

    In an appearance before 1,200 people at an event sponsored by the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, Dole attempted for the first time to bolster her own political aspirations rather than those of her husband, former senator Robert J. Dole, who lost the 1996 presidential election, finishing second in this state's primary.

    "Tonight I would like to share with you the cause that's pressing on my mind," said Dole, who has yet to officially announce her intentions. "There's been a little speculation that I might run for president," she paused, as the audience applauded. "And if I run, this will be an important reason why: Because the United States deserves a government worthy of her people."

    Dole stuck to broad strokes, offering herself as an experienced, but humble, public servant who has dedicated her life to helping others. She spoke, without offering specifics, of reducing taxes, improving education by returning local control, rebuilding the military and fighting drugs.

    She sought to distance herself from the partisan politics of Washington, emphasizing her small-town North Carolina upbringing and proclaiming that "in my church, I learned to serve rather than stand in judgment." The overriding theme of her 30 years of public life, she said, "lies in placing service over politics, to try consensus before confrontation and to count on the deep desire of my fellow countrymen to do what is right."

    New Hampshire GOP Chairman Steve Duprey said of the speech: "Clearly, it was thematic. She's trying to portray herself as an optimistic conservative, a kind of sunny Reagan optimism." Several audience members said afterward it sounded as if she were running. "I thought it was full of cliches, but it wasn't bad at all," said David Deziel of Manchester. "It was the kind of stump speech you'd expect from someone running for office."

    Dole, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was a secretary of transportation in the Reagan administration and secretary of labor in the Bush administration. Dole had been president of the American Red Cross since 1991 taking a leave in 1996 to help run her husband's campaign before resigning last month.

    If she decides to run, her campaign would be the first viable presidential candidacy by a woman, political analysts say. Her speech foreshadowed a campaign that would not shy away from gender issues or moderate political concerns. She said she had "challenged sexual stereotyping at Harvard Law School." She reminded the audience that as transportation secretary she worked with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to press legislation to raise the drinking age to 21.

    Since her resignation, Dole has been calling supporters around the country, and she believes she can raise the $20 million-plus that experts say candidates will need to be competitive, supporters say.

    A Dole aide described the New Hampshire visit as an important political test and the "the last hurdle" in Dole's decision-making process. "This is going to be her first major political speech," the aide said. "She's going to be using it as an opportunity to test the waters and meet with potential supporters. After that, we'll be in a position to make a decision on an exploratory [committee]."

    In a tightly scripted visit designed to minimize media contact, Dole did not schedule a press conference or grant prearranged interviews. However, prior to a private cocktail reception at 5 p.m., she briefly talked to reporters and camera crews. She danced around the question of her timetable for announcing her plans.

    "Well, I've just been out of the Red Cross about three weeks now and so obviously this is the time when you want to talk with people, do some traveling, do some listening, certainly," she said. "It's very encouraging. There are a number of people who are calling to volunteer, and some money is coming in, which is helpful."

    Privately, many supporters in New Hampshire say they are convinced she will run, or at least that she will form an exploratory committee, which would allow her to begin assessing a candidacy. One source close to Dole said the decision would come soon, but likely not this week.

    National and state political analysts agree that Dole would be formidable. In a poll conducted in January by CNN and New Hampshire's WMUR-TV, she was the choice of 31 percent of likely Republican primary voters, essentially tied with Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. In national polls, she regularly places second to Bush and well ahead of the rest of the growing Republican pack. National polls also show Dole faring well against Vice President Gore in a general election matchup.

    "I'm very very impressed with her education and background and also her experience," said Stella Hughes, a home builder from Bedford who organized a large group of activists to meet with Dole this morning. "I also think that she is a person of integrity and character and religious conviction and dedication. I'm not supporting her because she is a woman but because she has everything."

    Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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