For Elizabeth Dole, it simply wasn't in the cards.
By bowing out of the presidential chase Wednesday, she helped the Republican Party avoid ruinous primary fights for the allegiance of its moderates. Time and again, she showed she had genuine star power, pulling in overflow crowds and attracting young women into her campaign. She just couldn't raise enough money. By the time she got into the race, the Republican establishment had gotten solidly behind two-term Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and he was raising 10 times the money she was. Celebrity alone won't get you to the White House.
The timing of her announcement, coming the day after the Senate killed campaign finance reform legislation, should focus American voters' attention as never before on the way money is undermining democracy.
Once again, money has become everything, and once again the public has lost the chance to select among a range of candidates with different visions of where they want to take the country. Bush, unless he makes some awful mistake, has in effect been able to secure the nomination, not because he has good ideas -- compassionate conservatism is an oxymoron, not an idea -- but because the money has been gushing toward him like he'd hit another Spindletop.
Dole raised $1 million between July and September. Bush raised $20.2 million. Dole figured front-runner Bush and millionaire publisher Steve Forbes could outspend her 75 or 80 to 1.
The last three presidential election cycles have seen Republican candidates' coffers run dry after bruising primaries, says Republican consultant Steve Hofman, who is not involved in any of the campaigns. The GOP candidates not only lost focus on the Democratic opponent, but also ran out of money between the end of the primaries and the convention, when the party nominee becomes eligible for federal matching funds for the general election.
"In every instance, the winning candidate . . . had no money to be out there until the end of the convention," Hofman said. "This dug a hole in every instance." George Bush, the father of the Texas governor, "was able to recover in '88, but in '92 and '96, the Republicans did not recover from that. There is a strong sense within the party that a long, expensive and divisive primary season will only benefit the other party."
George W. Bush looked like a winner from the start, and his ability to generate money only reinforced that.
"The Bush campaign has been so effective so far that it has sucked all the energy out of the other campaigns," Hofman said. "It's not just the money, though that's been an important part. The Bush campaign has been so successful early on in having an aura of inevitability to it that it's left very little for the other campaigns. It's made it difficult for people like Mrs. Dole to be successful in terms of message and breaking through. It's not a failure of her campaign. She's run a good, traditional campaign. She's spoken to issues. She's excited some people. She's not been risk-averse. But you just have a case where the Bush campaign has taken the wind out of the sails of everybody else.
"George W. Bush is a two-term governor from Texas with a lot of other right things going for him," Hofman said. "At the end of the day, when people look around and say who can win and keep us united, it came down to Bush. Mrs. Dole has never held elective office, and John McCain is coming out of the Senate. There's a sense within the party that executive experience is the recruiting ground."
Marie Wilson, a founder of the White House Project that is working to have women running for the presidency, said Dole has shown that "women can run a viable presidential campaign, that female candidates for the presidency can bring new people into the process. One of the most exciting things that happened is the participation of young women. . . . It was a reflection that there is a possibility for them in political leadership. The fact she was able to do as well as she did shows the climate is warming. . . . We were extremely fortunate in that the first woman actually running nationwide" for a major party's nomination for president had the qualifications she had.
Wilson also noted that Dole ran into media coverage that is typical when only one woman is in the race, with questions of where is her husband, how does she get on and off tractors, and why is she wearing a lavender suit -- in New York! "Gender trumps the agenda. You can't just have one woman. You have to have a number of women so you can focus on visions for the country."
Clearly, it takes years of preparation and grooming to become a viable presidential candidate, and the White House project is putting out material to raise girls' presidential visions. "People have to plan this years and years ahead of time," Wilson said. "That's what they did with George W. Bush. We need to focus on some women in that way."
After the 1996 campaign, Wilson notes, people were saying Elizabeth Dole should have been the GOP candidate, and not her husband, former Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole. After he lost, Wilson asked, "why didn't someone set up a political action committee" to promote Elizabeth Dole's future? "Instead, she went back to the Red Cross."
Dole's campaign wasn't helped by her husband's comment in May that he might donate to the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). At the time, he said, he was "a little concerned" her campaign was off to a slow start. She responded that he was in the "family woodshed. . . . He looks good in there." While she insisted he was fully supportive, his public skepticism was hardly the bounce she needed to break through.
She has said for the time being, she will not endorse any other GOP candidate, but of course that could change. If Bush gets the nomination, and he can figure out some way of winning California short of naming a Californian as his running mate, Elizabeth Dole might have a good shot at the number two spot. She's come out of this just fine, and she's kept her options open.