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A Preview of the 1996 Campaign? President Shows Strength in his Matchup With Dole

By David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 1996; Page A01

President Clinton was longer and stronger than Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, his possible reelection opponent, as they faced off last night in back-to-back television speeches that were, in effect, the first debate of the 1996 campaign.

The odds favored the president, who delivered his thoughts in the ceremonial splendor that surrounds the annual State of the Union address. Dole (R-Kan.), responding for the GOP from his flag-bedecked Capitol office, drew the philosophical and political differences sharply but sounded flat and unemotional as he read from the TelePrompTer.

"Dole didn't look very hot," said Tim Hibbits, an independent pollster in Portland, Ore. "He seemed old and tired. Republicans who want to beat Clinton may not think he's the guy who can pull it off."

A senior official in the last three Republican presidential campaigns, speaking anonymously, said, "Clinton did a great job. I think he'll get a bump up in the polls from this." Dole, this consultant said, "came across as having no soul."

A second Republican public relations official called it "a pretty grim night for the GOP. He {Clinton} took a lot of our issues and made them sound like his own."

Going into the evening, Clinton faced a serious challenge. He would be talking in a room dominated by his political adversaries, at a time when polls said most Americans were disgusted by the impasse over the budget and the federal government shutdowns. He had to find a way to rise above the battle, grab the center ground and still rally his embattled minority party.

Observers said he seemed to have done all three. David R. Gergen, a public relations adviser to President Ronald Reagan and Clinton who is now back in journalism, called it "the most artful and effective" State of the Union Clinton has given. "It shows how tough he will be in the coming campaign."

Intentionally or not, the television cameras helped Clinton make the Republicans look like narrow partisans. On most of the applause lines that brought Vice President Gore and the Democrats to their feet cheering, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), also seated behind the president, sat with hands folded, looking grim.

The cutaway TV shots to glowering Republicans on the House floor heightened the impression created by Clinton's words that he was the reasonable conciliator, confronting a party of stony-faced and rigid ideologues.

"Clinton played the Republicans as skillfully in the speech as he has in the whole budget negotiations," said one Democratic consultant who does not work for the White House. "They have to be going crazy trying to figure him out."

For Dole, fighting for his party's nomination, the challenge was even more immediate. Rivals have charged that Dole could not match up to Clinton if he were to face him in the autumn presidential debates.

One of Dole's opponents, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, has been asking Republican audiences to imagine those debates, where Clinton will "walk out from behind the podium and over to the questioners and he'll look them in the eye and he'll feel their pain and he'll give a very good answer."

If the other contestant is Dole, Alexander says, "the response is about OMB and CBO and Washington and getting a bill out of subcommittee. We've got President Clinton for four more years and we've got a Democratic Congress for four more years."

Another presidential rival, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, has asked voters, "When is the last time anybody remembers Senator Dole responding to President Clinton in such a way that they said, Bob hit the nail right on the head'?"

Actually, Dole bested Clinton politically the last time they squared off. It was State of the Union night in 1994 and then, too, Dole gave the Republican response.

Anticipating that Clinton would use his speech to plead for quick action on his ambitious health care reform plan, Dole borrowed a chart devised by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) that made the administration proposal look like the ultimate big-government, Rube Goldberg device. "It's a big chart, containing 207 boxes," Dole said. "It would take a long time to explain – if I fully understood it myself. . . . But the president's idea is to put a mountain of bureaucrats between you and your doctor."

That speech was a signal event in the successful Republican effort to kill the main domestic policy initiative of Clinton's first term. It set the stage for the spectacularly successful GOP campaign against "big government" in the midterm elections of 1994.

In a clear preemptive strike, Clinton three times asserted last night that he and other Democrats realize "the era of big government is over." He sounded conservative themes on family values and crime, and even set out to trump Dole on getting more wholesome entertainment onto television and movie screens. Dole had won praise for going to Hollywood last year and telling film moguls to clean up their act. Clinton said he was summoning the moguls to the White House next month to demand "concrete ways to improve what our children see."

Dole could have asked someone else to respond to last night's address since it was his turn, as Senate leader, to designate the party spokesman. A year ago, Gingrich passed up the honor and enlisted New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R).

But Dole has used his position as leader of the Senate as the main prop for his presidential campaign. Aides said he thought the response was "part of his responsibility." Giving it was certainly part of his strategy of seeming to be on a different plane of leadership than the others in the big GOP field.

The theatrics of the contest, as always, favored the president. He got to go first, with the leaders of all three branches of government, the military and the diplomatic corps gazing up at him from the floor of the House of Representatives, and with a cross-section of American heroes seated in the gallery.

He radiated reasonableness throughout the speech, rarely alluding to his vetoes and stressing how eager he was to sign a balanced budget, a welfare reform bill and other measures.

That left it to Dole to make the Republican argument that "we have starkly different philosophies of government and profoundly different visions of America."

Dole may have helped himself with the Republican primary voters by vowing that he would not "bend or yield" to Clinton – a rebuttal to the charges from Gramm and others that he was too ready to compromise.

But early voter samplings indicated that he had less success convincing independent-minded voters that the Republicans were right in insisting on their own versions of tax, Medicare and Medicaid changes.

Despite his frequent allusions to youths and children and the future, Dole's body language and lackluster delivery gave rivals an opening to argue that, at 72, he is no match for the television-savvy Democratic president. Alexander and conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan both faulted Dole's presentation and suggested that the GOP could not risk having him as the nominee.

Whether any of Dole's opponents would have fared better is a question they do not have to answer – yet.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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