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  •   Dole Stakes Out Position in Center

    By Thomas B. Edsall
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, May 4, 1999; Page A5

    After being criticized for her cautious approach to presidential campaigning, Elizabeth Dole has recently established herself as the most willing of the Republican candidates to stake out controversial stands challenging party orthodoxy.

    On two key issues, guns and abortion, Dole has taken positions defying formidable pro-gun and antiabortion forces, in a gamble that she can mobilize the center-moderate wing of the party -- a high-risk strategy in a primary process that has been dominated by the right-center.

    This past weekend in New Hampshire, where the gun lobby is a powerful force in the state's Republican presidential primary, Dole declared her support for banning certain assault weapons, requiring safety locks on guns and outlawing "cop killer" bullets.

    "I don't think you need an AK-47 to defend your family," she told a generally silent audience of 1,000 at a GOP dinner Sunday night in Manchester.

    "It was a courageous thing to do," said Linda DiVall, her pollster. Dole demonstrated that she will not "be dictated to by an icon of the National Rifle Association," said DiVall, referring to NRA President Charlton Heston.

    Dole's defiance of the gun lobby and her declaration that she would not push for a constitutional amendment banning abortion may anger some Republican primary voters, DiVall said. However, she argued, these stands will help build support among swing voters, suburbanites, and, most especially, women.

    In recent years, some GOP leaders have explored attempts to move the party and its platform toward more centrist stands, in much the same way that President Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council in the early 1990s pressed the Democratic Party to abandon some of its commitments to the left. The success of Republican conservatives in Congress and of President Reagan in 1980 and 1984 have, however, made Republicans reluctant to move from right to center -- pitting the Dole soccer mom strategy against powerful rightward currents within the party.

    A number of operatives were skeptical of Dole's approach, noting that George Bush in 1980 and then-Gov. Pete Wilson (Calif.) in 1996 were unsuccessful when they tried to win the GOP nomination pursuing moderates.

    "It would be a high-risk strategy, but there could be suburban soccer mom-type voters who have not been particularly juiced up by the issues that have been discussed in the Republican Party," said Texas GOP pollster David Hill. He added that his rule of thumb in handicapping primary contests is that "the right-most of the legitimate candidates almost always wins."

    A key strategist for one of Dole's competitors said that Dole has "made a calculation that she has got to go to the left" of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, adding, "there is no room to the right" because of the numerous conservative candidates running. "She is going to the left of Bush and trying to pick up the immigrants from Massachusetts to New Hampshire who are much more liberal than New Hampshire natives."

    Conservative strategist Donald Devine said that "there are moderate voters in the Republican Party, but I don't think it's the right way to win. There just are not enough moderates to win."

    "She's trying to find. . . . a working coalition between center and right," said Arizona GOP Chairman Mike Hellon. "Anything you say is going to carry some risk, but if she can marry those two positions [on guns and abortion], she had adopted positions that tend to be strongly supported by female voters."

    A Dole campaign operative said: "Elizabeth Dole has found a niche and it's a growing niche. The far right has splintered. The trick of this race is to find the center, and women are going to be a key part of that."

    Asked about her stands yesterday while campaigning in New Hampshire, Dole told reporters: "I have never shied away from saying what I think is the truth or taking on a tough issue." The Republican Party, she said, should not "be dominated by any special interest."

    Researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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