The uniqueness of Elizabeth Dole's presidential candidacy is instantly obvious wherever she campaigns. The audiences are overwhelmingly female: younger women, older women, women with babies, women with husbands, women who are Republican Party veterans and women who have never participated in the political process before.
"Be a part of history," says the sign Dole held up at campaign events this week. The message is similar to one she put on an airplane that flew over the Rose Bowl last Saturday, when the U.S. women's soccer team won the World Cup.
As the first serious female candidate for president, Dole hopes to capture some of the same kind of support and enthusiasm the public showed for the women athletes, and as she campaigned through Iowa this week, there was evidence that the history-making aspect of her campaign was her strongest appeal.
But that appeal may not be enough to overcome concerns among some of the Republicans who turned out to see her that she has not done enough to differentiate herself from Texas Gov. George W. Bush and that Bush would be the stronger general election candidate.
There is no mistaking the positive impression Dole makes on many of the women in her audiences. "She's fabulous," said Jeannie Havnen, who was at the community center of a local bank when Dole showed up here on Monday afternoon. Havnen said she was leaning toward Bush until she heard Dole speak and became an instant supporter. "She's easy to love," Havnen said.
That kind of tribute has persuaded Dole and her campaign advisers that she has what it takes to successfully challenge Bush for the GOP nomination. "We've got the enthusiasm of these new participants in presidential politics," she said in an interview before a town meeting in Ames on Monday evening. "I think this will be extremely important because of the passion they have, the enthusiasm, the excitement, the energy they bring to it is really impressive."
The first real test of the Dole campaign's ability to convert enthusiasm into votes will come next month at the nonbinding straw poll in Ames sponsored by the Iowa Republican Party, and Dole implored her audiences to participate. "Don't wait until February to come out and vote," she said, "because this is going to be important. I know there are a lot of other things you'd rather do on a hot day in August, but I hope you'll be with me."
But when asked how well she hopes to do in the straw poll, she declined to say. "I'm not trying to be evasive but I don't feel I want to make predictions," Dole said. "I don't think this is do or die for us at all, but I think we will do well because of what I've seen out here.
Dole's campaign started last winter with enormous promise but sputtered through the spring. Despite the advantage of one of the best-known names in Republican politics and the visibility gained from serving in the Cabinets of two GOP presidents, Dole has been no match for Bush in fund-raising or in gathering endorsements of party leaders.
The disparity between her campaign and Bush's makes some Republicans who otherwise like her message, admire her personally and say she has the qualifications to serve as president more inclined to support front-runner Bush.
When Dole visited the Madison County Historical Society here this week, Jane Wiggins brought some of her summer campers to see the Republican candidate. "I thought it would be exciting for Winterset kids to see a presidential candidate," she said.
But when asked whether she would be supporting Dole's candidacy, Wiggins said she doubted it--even though she was delighted with what she heard and believes Dole is as qualified as any of the other candidates to hold the presidency.
"I would like to see George W. Bush as president and Elizabeth Dole as vice president," she said. Given how impressed she was with Dole, why not a Dole-Bush ticket, Wiggins was asked? "It seems that George W. Bush has the momentum," she replied.
Dole claims such talk doesn't discourage her. "I think anything can happen at this point," she said. Pointing to Bush's strength in the polls, she added, "It's not going to be easy to sustain over a period of time."
Dole's campaign message remains a mixture of conventional conservative support for lower taxes and higher defense spending, along with support for "common sense" gun control proposals. She favors free trade, as well as a two-track policy on China that includes negotiations to open Chinese markets to U.S. goods and "hammering" the Chinese for their "abominable record" on human rights.
She advocates strengthening public schools by giving teachers more power over their classrooms and local school districts more authority, rather than running schools "by remote control" from Washington.
She is most passionate in denouncing the "ugly politics" that have left millions of Americans disaffected from the political system. "People are yearning for a leader who will call them to their better natures," she says to applause.
On most issues other than gun control, where she is less conservative than Bush, Dole and the Texas governor are not in sharp disagreement. Nor does she seem eager to begin to challenge Bush directly on issues. But obliquely at least, she suggested that she has far better credentials than Bush to step into the presidency.
"I think you do have to run on your record," Dole said. "You've got to let people know what it is you've done and what prepares you for a position such as this, so your experience is a very major part of it."
Judging from the people who come to see her campaign, Dole has the capacity to draw support from independent and Democratic women. At a campaign event in Des Moines on Monday morning, Shirlee Buschow said she it would be "very exciting" to have a woman president in the White House. "I'm a Democrat so it's a little bit confusing right now," she said. "But I've been a working woman for 27 years so I'm taking a real serious look at her."
Dole said there is plenty of time for her campaign to grow, but Bush's early success has put pressure on her to move beyond the introductory phase of her campaign. After watching her campaign here this week, Tom Gorman, publisher of the Madisonian newspaper and former GOP chairman in Madison County, said Dole must begin to challenge Bush more directly if she hopes to become a serious contender for the nomination.
"Women are drawn to her," Gorman said, "and she's got more hard support than the polls give her credit for. . . . But she's going to have to get a little tougher and focused. She's still pretty chit-chatty. She'll have to start swinging some."
CAPTION: Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Dole, whose audiences are overwhelmingly female, waves to crowd last week in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
CAPTION: Dole solicits Republicans' support Tuesday at town hall meeting in Clarion, Iowa.