DURHAM, N.C., MARCH 1 -- Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) dramatically escalated his attacks on Vice President Bush today, reviving questions about Bush's role in the Iran-contra affair and taunting Bush to explain what he has done during the last seven years.
As his campaign began running negative television commercials in some of the "Super Tuesday" states of the South where he faces an uphill struggle, Dole today portrayed his chief rival as a weak captive of the "Rockefeller establishment" who has nothing to show for his years as vice president.
He said Bush has offered "nine different answers" on his role in the Iran-contra affair, raising a "credibility" issue. He also ridiculed Bush's leadership ability and his campaign theme promising to be "the education president."
Bush, campaigning in Boca Raton, Fla., was asked by reporters about Dole's charges on the Iran-contra affair. "I support the president, and I have nothing to say about Dole's charge," Bush said. Earlier today, Bush told a Fort Lauderdale crowd: "I'm not going to get into the gutter answering every single attack" from other candidates.
But the Bush campaign was not so benign. In South Carolina, where Republicans vote on Saturday, Bush began running a television commercial that charges Dole failed to support President Reagan and failed to deliver in the Senate for him. A new radio ad there attacks Dole's campaign chairman, William E. Brock, for his handling of textile industry problems when Brock was U.S. trade representative.
But on the campaign trail, Dole took the lead in a wide-ranging, tough attack on Bush a week before the March 8 Super Tuesday GOP contests in 17 states. "He talks about executive leadership," Dole said at a news conference here. "Well, where is it? Tell me what you've done, George. Tell the American voter what you've done. Give us some decision you've made that made a difference in the last seven years."
Dole also attacked Bush's stand on trade policy and his warnings about setting off a trade war that would invite foreign retaliation.
"He's just going along with the establishment line, the old Rockefeller establishment line, where he gets a lot of his money, a lot of his information," Dole said in an attempt to link Bush to the eastern, more moderate wing of the Republican Party.
Dole acknowledged that Bush enjoys a "big lead" in the South. His more aggressive tactics appeared aimed at preventing that lead from being transformed into a near-insurmountable advantage in delegates to the GOP national convention.
Since Bush's convincing victory in the Feb. 16 New Hampshire primary, Dole has seemed uncertain and tentative in resuming the political offensive. At times, he and his staff have appeared almost paralyzed by fear of reviving Dole's lingering reputation for "meanness." In the meantime, Bush has reverted to an imperial campaign style, all but ignoring Dole and the other GOP candidates as he stresses his commitment to education and his loyalty to Reagan.
With Super Tuesday a week away, Dole acknowledged today the need for him to shake up a Republican race that has fallen into a slumbering pattern that appears to benefit Bush. "We need to do something to let people know that Bob Dole is a candidate, Bob Dole is in this race and there is a difference between Bob Dole and George Bush," he said.
One part of that effort is Dole's resurrection of the Iran-contra affair. In two new television ads, an announcer says, "Dole opposed selling arms to Iran; Bush supported the arms-for-hostages deal." The ads are running in parts of North Carolina, Missouri and Oklahoma, the Super Tuesday states where Dole thinks he has his best chance of a breakthrough.
In slightly different versions in the three states, the commercials also say that Bush "waffles on taxes," attack him for opposing legislation to protect the textile industry and say he endorsed the new treaty with the Soviet Union on intermediate-range nuclear forces "before he even read it."
"That's precisely what he did -- he supported the sale of arms to Iran," Dole said in defense of the ads. "I said no and I meant it." In fact, Dole, like other members of Congress and the public, was unaware of the Iran arms deal at the time the Reagan administration approved it.
"I said it probably wasn't a big issue among Republicans, but now we're talking about credibility," Dole said in explaining his revival of the subject. "When somebody gives you nine different answers on the same question, I think it becomes an issue."
Dole campaign aides later distributed a three-page compilation of news media reports of Bush's explanations of his Iran-contra role.
After the uncertainty and internal organizational turmoil that followed the New Hampshire primary, Dole appeared buoyed to be back on the attack today. He took special delight in assailing Bush's vow to be "the education president."
"My chief opponent runs around saying he wants to be president of education," Dole told a large crowd of Duke University students here. "Well, he's certainly been quiet these last seven years while this administration has been whacking billions and billions of dollars out of the education budget. I haven't heard one word."
Staff writer David Hoffman contributed to this report.