Dole Opens Presidential Exploratory Effort
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 1999; Page A1
DES MOINES, March 10 Elizabeth Hanford Dole became the first competitive female presidential contender in history today and sent a clear signal that she intends to wrest the mantle of compassionate conservative from her major Republican rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Backed up on stage by a working single mother, a 12-year-old African American girl with ambitions to be president and a history teacher struggling to maintain standards, Dole announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee a critical first step toward actually running.
Addressing specific audience members by their first names and reaching out to touch others, Dole moved back and forth in the T-shaped aisle of the convention center room where she made her announcement, sending out waves of empathy as she said:
"What would I, as a woman, offer our country? I'm not a politician and frankly I think that is a plus today. But I have spent a lifetime in public service." She cited her record as a Cabinet secretary in the Reagan and Bush administrations, as a Federal Trade Commission member, a member of Ronald Reagan's White House staff and most recently as head of the American Red Cross. "I place service over politics, consensus over confrontation."
With the tone and style of the presentation as important as its content, Dole stressed the idea of restoring civility to politics, and made only indirect reference to the scandals of the Clinton administration.
"If I run, this will be why: I believe our people are looking for leaders who will call America to her better nature," Dole said. "Yes, we've been let down, and by people we should have been able to look up to."
Dole said that when she "entered public service as a young woman many years ago, it was considered a noble thing to do."
Dole's talk closely paralleled themes she set out in a 14-minute video that began showing today in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states in the presidential nominating process. In it, she says: "If today's politics seem irrelevant, it falls to us all of us to make them more relevant. If public life is lacking in civility, then it is our common task to help civilize it."
While Dole made a splash with her announcement today, she has taken the first step into a contest in which she faces tough hurdles.
She was greeted this morning by a Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers showing her far behind Bush, 16.4 percent to 36.7 percent, in a state where she must have a good showing, if not a win, if she is to be credible.
In addition, Dole is competing for the same centrist, establishment wing of the party as Bush. But unlike Bush, she has been unable to attract much formal support in terms of endorsements from prominent members of the GOP establishment. Her staff declined today to provide a list of members of her exploratory committee, in what some here took as a sign of difficulty in developing an impressive lineup of backers.
Dole concluded her remarks with a declaration that she wants to "listen" to the voters. But in what associates described as a wariness of unscripted, spontaneous events, she took no questions from the audience and rejected requests from reporters for a news conference.
"She's as tight as the cap on a nuclear hatch," said a campaign aide who worked with her during the failed effort of her husband, former Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole, to win the presidency in 1996.
Dole's announcement today will likely reinforce the doubts of conservatives about the depth of her commitment to such issues as abortion and home schooling. She made no mention of the controversial social issues, and such leaders of the right as Phyllis Schlafly, head of the Eagle Forum, have described some of the Dole team consultants as "pro-abortion."
In her announcement, as in her video, Dole made no mention of her husband, who was testifying before a House committee and did not appear with her today.
While rejecting the label of politician, Dole, a Harvard Law School graduate, touted both the intensity of her ambition and her experience as a Cabinet and nonprofit executive handling crises, from HIV-contaminated blood to selling Conrail for $2 billion to increased airline safety measures. "I am ready to take the next step," she said. "This week, I have filed papers to form an exploratory committee."
Without direct reference to her past role as a candidate's wife, she said, "I know a lot about running in a presidential campaign. . . . You have to have passion for what you believe can make a difference for this country because it's an arduous undertaking."
Both her talk today and her video stressed character and experience more than specific legislative agendas. Dole said that in contrast to the question Reagan asked in 1980, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago? . . . the better question we should be asking is: Are we better? Are our families stronger? . . . Do we assume responsibility for our culture and our choices?"
Without being specific, she said taxes should be cut, defense spending should be raised and the drive to build a strategic defense system should go forward. She placed strong emphasis on public education but made only peripheral reference to vouchers, a key issue to conservatives, at the end of one section of the video.
Before she spoke at today's campaign-style event there were two high school bands and a backdrop of blown-up color photos showing her on a ski slope and at work Dole was lauded by Lisa Smith, the working mother, high school history teacher Mike Meyers and Diandra Rollings, an 8th-grade student from Ames, Iowa. Smith said she wants Dole to be president so she can turn on her television set and tell her children, "See, you need to be just like that." Dole hugged and kissed each of them after they spoke.
When Dole stepped down from the stage to begin her remarks, she brought the student along. With her arm around the girl, Dole said Diandra "would like to be president of the United States, and I think that's a wonderful goal. . . . So I wanted Diandra to stand here with me as we make an announcement that may be historic."
Dole brings to the campaign the allure of being the first woman of such competitive stature to run for the presidency. She has never held elective office, however, and lacks a core constituency to provide either a base of voters or an automatic source of cash to meet the demands of raising $20 million at a minimum, and more likely in the range of $30 million to $45 million for a fully competitive bid.
Staff researcher Ben White in Washington contributed to this report.
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