The Candidate's Wife And Partner in Climb
By Kevin Merida and Susan Schmidt
It was a pivotal moment in Robert J. Dole's quest for the presidency, a cold night last February in New Hampshire in a hotel room filled with somber advisers. The early returns were disastrous for the Republican front-runner. The candidate with the biggest organization, the most at stake, seemed destined to finish third in the nation's first primary.
Dole's despair was hard to hide, an anguish shared by practically everyone in the room, everyone except Elizabeth Hanford Dole, the determined optimist who made it her mission to lift the mood and resuscitate her husband's spirit. She knew he had talked of quitting earlier that evening, but now second place was within reach; perhaps a psychological victory could be claimed.
"She was very upbeat," recalled Warren B. Rudman, the former New Hampshire senator who was in the room. "She said, 'Well, we've got a tougher fight than we thought.' She is very effervescent at times like that."
Dole intimates have harkened back to those dismal hours last winter to explain the role Elizabeth Dole is playing now as her husband closes out a campaign in which little has gone right: She remains his tireless cheerleader, his closest adviser, a passionate protector of his interests, his best friend.
As her husband bounds sleepily into Day Two of his final round-the-clock marathon, Elizabeth Dole will be right there with him, tuning out the background noise of defeat. At noon today, while candidate Dole looks on, she is scheduled to give what her staff bills as a major address in Covington, Ky., "on what she's learned on the campaign trail, what Americans are feeling and why she believes her husband is the best man to lead the country."
While some in Dole's orbit have been second-guessing strategy, blaming the candidate for his shortcomings and all but throwing in the towel, Elizabeth Dole is still relentlessly arguing her husband's case, almost as if she were running for president herself.
"She wants to make sure she doesn't look back and say, 'Oh, I could have done this or that,' " said Rep. Tillie Fowler (R-Fla.), a close friend who has known her for nearly three decades. "She really believes in Bob Dole."
But whatever happens Tuesday, scholars have reserved a place for Elizabeth Dole in the campaign history texts, an example of how the boundaries of spousal campaigning can be stretched. No other presidential challenger's wife has ever addressed a national political convention. No other wife of a challenger or sitting president has so overtly taken on her husband's foe. And no other wife has drawn so much speculation about her own political plans in the closing days of a campaign.
Elizabeth Dole has informed the board of the American Red Cross that she will resume her duties as president by the end of the year, regardless of whether her husband wins or loses his third presidential race. Other than that, her future is anyone's guess.
After she addressed a crowd of 1,100 recently at the nonpartisan Women's Economic Forum in Detroit, the club's executive director, Gerry Barron, said: "Most of the comments I heard were, 'She should be running.' "
Mari Will, her close friend and a political strategist, was even more succinct: "She is a leading contender to be the next Republican nominee."
But though some polls show she is more popular than her husband or his running mate, Jack Kemp, voters are still sorting out what they think of her. And most are not yet prepared to project her as an Oval Office occupant.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 33 percent of those surveyed said they were more likely to support Elizabeth Dole for president some day based on her performance in this campaign, while 45 percent said they were less likely to vote for her in the future. There was virtually no distinction between men and women on this issue. Among Republicans, however, the poll shows a majority believe the campaign has improved her stock as a future candidate.
The Elizabeth Dole the nation has come to know during the campaign is a carefully constructed blend of the modern and the traditional.
One day she was trying to save her husband from an unflattering confrontation with Katie Couric on live television. The next day she was hurtling from city to city in a 14-seat corporate jet, the buttoned-up manager of a 30-person staff that includes an advance team of 12, a smooth campaigner who is often more effective than the candidate himself.
If her husband should dramatically overcome President Clinton's huge lead in the polls, the nation would get a first lady unlike any in history. At 60, Elizabeth Dole is arguably the most accomplished woman to have scaled the ranks of government. A Harvard-trained lawyer, she has held two Cabinet posts, served under five presidents and influenced public policy for more than a quarter of a century.
And yet there is another side of her that she has presented with show-stopping effect on the campaign trail, waltzing among audiences, microphone clipped to her dress. This Elizabeth Dole is the genteel former debutante from small-town North Carolina whose charm and folksy mannerisms seem tailor-made for the stand-by-your-man routine she is performing now.
This duality a stark combination of packaging and substance, sugar and steel has made her one of the biggest attractions in Republican politics and a valuable asset to Robert Dole as well.
"She is the best character reference and endorser that a political candidate could have," boasted Dole communications director John Buckley. "Her influence is less issue specific than it is an influence on tone."
More steeped in the nuances of policy and politics than most wives of presidential contenders, Elizabeth Dole often encounters a stubborn and conflicted husband who likes to resolve problems in his own way.
"He's a hard head," said one of Dole's top advisers, who is not part of the day-to-day campaign operation. "Her impact only goes so far."
In recent weeks, she has grown concerned about her husband's legacy, not wanting him to end his campaign with a tarnished public image. Thus, unlike some counselors to her husband, she has remained firm that Whitewater, the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment lawsuit and other personal peccadilloes plaguing President Clinton, should remain "off limits," according to Mari Will, who was the campaign communications director earlier this year. Will described Elizabeth Dole as "very, very uncomfortable" with the idea of pursuing such issues.
Though candidate Dole has tried to make a distinction between public and private character, his attacks on the Clinton administration's ethical behavior have been harsh, a tactic that would seem to be in conflict with his wife's desires.
"She wants to keep him kinder and gentler, be light, share humor," said the top Dole adviser who is not involved in the day-to-day decisions. "He doesn't take direction."
It is not helpful to her cause, this adviser added, that there are "too many cooks" at campaign headquarters vying for his ear. "She is the person he may listen to most, but her influence is diminished by the numbers."
And yet Elizabeth Dole has hardly been on the sidelines in the effort to undermine Clinton's leadership, from questioning the administration's role in the FBI files controversy to challenging the president's commitment to fighting drugs. Recently, she delivered the GOP's response to Clinton's weekly radio address, defending her party's position on Medicare. Some scholars say the role she has played as Clinton's polite tormentor has set a new standard for first lady contenders. Her favorite dig is to mock Clinton's principles by displaying a miniature rocking chair that rocks left to right.
Carl Sferrazza Anthony, an expert on the political styles of first ladies, said watching Elizabeth Dole this campaign season reminded him of Lady Bird Johnson on her 1964 whistle-stop tour through the South, selling her husband's civil rights initiatives.
"The packaging was cozy, feminine, nonthreatening," he said. "But inside that package was a radical message for those times. Elizabeth is not touting a controversial piece of legislation, but in her own under-the-magnolia tree manner she is criticizing President Clinton point by point, in a way that candidates' wives generally do not."
But there are many times when she simply can't break through, unable to penetrate either the political cavalry that surrounds Dole, or his mind. Over the years this is her fourth national campaign with him she has needled him to smile more, rehearse more, excavate more of his inner self for the public to see. But he sometimes reacts, as one friend of the Doles put it, like a third-grader being asked to read poetry in front of the class. "He often makes funny faces," the friend said.
At times during the campaign Elizabeth Dole has been frustrated with the campaign brain trust, which one longtime friend dubs "the boys club." According to this friend, she believes that campaign strategy has been too driven by polling and that the economy, on which Dole's 15 percent tax cut proposal is centered, is not the prime issue for many voters.
"Sometimes I feel like you could build a whole presidential campaign on restoring personal responsibility," she told a gathering of women in Detroit.
The last three Republican first ladies Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford were all thought to be more moderate than their presidential spouses. But Elizabeth Dole is more difficult to peg, according to Dole associates.
"If anything, she would be somewhat more moderate [than her husband]," said a senior campaign adviser who knows them both well. "But on most issues you wouldn't be able to find the crack because they won't let you find it."
Though the Doles have a partnership, friends say, based on mutual admiration, shared ambition and trust, some of the values that undergird their approaches to public policy are quite different.
Elizabeth Dole, for instance, is a legendary perfectionist, who flies with a briefing book on her lap and who sometimes asks that the most minute facts be double-checked before she uses them. Her chief of staff, Bob Davis, recalled being pushed to verify which two congressional appropriations bills contain funding for the Violence Against Women Act.
Former senator Dole, on the other hand, who served in Congress for 35 years, has a more instinctive approach to public policy and how it is sold via the media. He is more comfortable with one-page summaries and verbal updates. "She thinks he's not prepared enough; he thinks she's overprepared," said Walt Riker, Dole's Senate press secretary for 13 years.
Not even Elizabeth Dole may be able to resolve the mountainous problem her husband faces in turning around the election. But her sheer presence in the final hours may be valuable for Dole's psyche.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has traveled frequently on Dole's campaign plane, recalls a swing through California before the Republican National Convention. Elizabeth Dole was in Monterrey and her husband was in Fresno. They were supposed to join up that evening in San Francisco. "Why don't we stop by and pick her up?" Dole asked his aides. When told that stop did not fit in their plans, Dole was momentarily stricken with anxiety and became more emphatic: "I want to see her. I want her on the plane."
Just like on that chilly February evening in New Hampshire when the news was not good, the most comforting thing for Robert J. Dole right now may be to have Elizabeth Dole at his side.
"He can trust her completely," said McCain. "She certainly has no other agenda."
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company