In the end, symbolism was all that was left of Elizabeth Dole's bid for the presidency.
With her eyes glistening and her face a mask of chipper resolve, she spoke the words that must be heartbreaking for any candidate: "It would be futile to continue . . . ." These few syllables were not given any particular emphasis from the rest of her speech, in which she lavished thanks on her supporters, but they came across with a certain amount of determined calm. No one would see her cry, scream or cuss. She would smile. With husband Bob (he who had insulted her campaign) standing just behind her, oh boy, how she would smile.
Dole had so desperately not wanted to be a symbolic candidate. But that is what she became. In her withdrawal speech she boasted about trying to run a nontraditional campaign and about bringing new--i.e., female--faces to the political process. It was the money--all that money raised by George W. Bush--that ultimately had done her in. But as the last bit of air squeaked from her deflated dreams, it is hard to find any evidence of a giant step forward for women in politics, any powerful agenda that would be snapped up by other candidates.
"She never gave us a blueprint," says Laura Ingraham, Republican commentator and host of MSNBC's "Watch It."
Dole had a choice of two paths. She could embrace her standing as a groundbreaking female candidate, campaign on gender and trumpet issues of particular interest to women. Or she could acknowledge her gender and then move swiftly onward, touting her resume filled with public service, presenting herself as simply another candidate looking for her next dollar, ready with a sound bite and believing that it is her destiny to lead.
Running on gender was not her style. She was ambivalent about barreling through walls and not inclined to boast about making history. As a result, she robbed herself of a defining image.
"If you think about the people in that race, you can say there's some image or shorthand message defining them," says Ruth B. Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "Gary Bauer--Christian right. McCain is a champion of campaign finance reform. People know that. They know about Steve Forbes and his flat tax. What people know about Bush is that he has money and is part of a dynasty. And Elizabeth Dole, you could have said she's a woman. . . . [She] made a decision that was not the way to go. But there was no alternate image that jelled for people.
"To lead a crusade, you have to name yourself a crusader and you have to name the crusade," Mandel says.
Dole never did. "I think her candidacy is an asterisk," Ingraham says. Dole's is another name added to the time line that tracks women from winning the right to vote and follows their, thus far, unsuccessful bids for the Oval Office: Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, Patricia S. Schroeder, Elizabeth H. Dole. She has extended women's political history, however slightly, not by speeches and debates, but simply by Being. Being a serious candidate.
"Any time there's a woman running for president, it's history-making. It's always very important because of the visuals it sends out to little girls watching TV," Schroeder says.
They saw a host of live images: Dole shaking hands in Iowa and soliciting votes. Dole smiling graciously and nodding empathetically as folks weave their personal tales. The exiting candidate gamely reading her goodbye speech.
"You're looking at [supporters] who've quit their job, put their life on hold, eaten crappy food. You feel such a commitment to them and you feel like you've really let them down," Schroeder says. "You really wish you could issue a press release from your bedroom with the windows drawn shut."
Does the symbol have value? A little, a smidge, if only because such symbols are so rare. "It was more than a desire or impulse. . . . [It was] a full-blown campaign. And frankly when women began this century without the right to vote and end the century seeing one of their own running for the presidency . . . this will go down as a marker," says Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a Republican pollster who worked on Dan Quayle's presidential campaign.
But a marker is frozen in time, without momentum, without influence. Who was Dole? An android in a yellow suit? One of many savvy Washington insiders? A groundbreaker?
"She didn't really have a chance to get her message out," says Candy Straight, president of Wish List, which provides fund-raising support to Republican women who support abortion-rights. Straight supported Dole despite her stand against abortion.
"I don't think she needed an issue per se. It was very important to me that she was a woman. She had different points of view. There were shades of difference from the men running," Straight says. "For me as a Republican woman who has actively supported Republican women for the last 10 years, that's very important because women bring a different perspective."
In terms of impact, Dole was stymied. "Conservatives who liked her had to deal with someone they liked doing something they didn't approve of"--running for president, Schroeder says.
And some young Republican women outside of Washington failed to be impressed by the talk of history and knew too little about her positions to be feel much more than indifference over her departure.
"It's not like I knew enough to legitimately support any candidate," says Kate Shindle, 22, a registered Republican, AIDS activist and former Miss America.
"I'm more concerned, when all is said and done, with how much I pay in taxes and what kind of job I can find," Shindle says. "I find it empowering as a woman to be a successful individual--not to have someone in office wearing a skirt."
CAPTION: Elizabeth Dole quit the race before voters got a handle on what she was all about.
CAPTION: Elizabeth Dole, withdrawing yesterday from the presidential race.