Elizabeth Dole abandoned the presidential race yesterday, saying her hopes of becoming the first female president had been overwhelmed by a disparity in financial resources against Texas Gov. George W. Bush that made it "nearly impossible to sustain an effective campaign."
Dole became the fifth Republican to drop out, and her departure came at a time when she was running second in national polls to Bush for the GOP nomination. But her apparent success at energizing new voters and attracting more women to the Republican Party never translated into success in raising the money needed for the compressed caucus and primary schedule.
Dole said she had reluctantly come to the conclusion over the weekend that "it would be futile to continue," shared that feeling with her husband, Robert J. Dole, the GOP's 1996 presidential nominee, "and he reluctantly agreed."
With her husband at her side during a morning news conference, Dole reminded her audience of the issues she had championed on the campaign trail, from gun control -- on which she took an early and controversially liberal stand -- to defense, foreign policy and education, on which she was a more traditional Republican. "In the real America, it's more important to raise issues than campaign funds," she said.
The rapid winnowing of the GOP field brought new demands yesterday for a revision of the primary process to create a more level playing field, diminish the importance of money and restore a stronger voice to voters in picking nominees.
"It's one more piece of evidence that we need to spread these primaries out," said Steve Duprey, New Hampshire Republican chairman. "It's unfortunate that the winnowing out that's occurred has been because of money instead of message."
Dole's departure may accrue to Bush's benefit, according to a variety of GOP strategists, because most polls show that he is the overwhelming second choice of Dole supporters. "Her supporters and Governor Bush's supporters share a lot in common," said Linda DiVall, Dole's pollster. "Bush is probably the first beneficiary."
But Dole's absence clears the way for Arizona Sen. John McCain and magazine publisher Steve Forbes to compete to become Bush's principal rival.
McCain advisers said their candidate, who has been gaining ground on Bush in New Hampshire, is best positioned to emerge as the alternative to Bush because of his experience in the House and Senate, his support among independent voters and his potential electability in a general election. "I think we're headed toward creating a two-man race, and I think this just speeds it up," said Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager.
McCain advisers also believe their candidate could benefit from a potentially nasty advertising war between Bush and Forbes in coming weeks that would damage the front-runner without helping Forbes, whose negative ads in 1996 against Bob Dole have left many Republicans bitter.
Advisers to Forbes, however, argued that their candidate is now best positioned to battle Bush for the nomination because Forbes has the financial resources to run against Bush in such big states as New York and California and because he has put together a national political organization. "We're the only other campaign than Bush that has the resources and the field organization to go the distance," said Bill Dal Col, Forbes's campaign manager.
With McCain skipping the Iowa caucuses, Forbes advisers foresee a one-on-one battle with Bush there that they say will set up their candidate for the contests that follow. But Forbes also will have to deal with Gary Bauer, who is popular with social and Christian conservative voters in Iowa, in a contest for the allegiance of conservative activists.
Dole's departure came as a new Washington Post poll showed Bush the overwhelming favorite of Republican voters to be the party's nominee next year. Bush was the choice of 63 percent of GOP voters, followed by Dole at 12 percent. Forbes was third with 7 percent, followed by Patrick J. Buchanan at 6 percent, McCain at 4 percent, Bauer at 2 percent, and Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch and former ambassador Alan Keyes at 1 percent each.
Dole's rivals, conscious of the star power she brought to the GOP contest as the only female candidate in the race, praised her candidacy yesterday and bid for her supporters.
Bush called her "a trailblazer" and said they agreed on many key issues. McCain said Dole had "made history," had a "unique ability to attract women" to the party, and, that as a leading advocate of campaign finance reform, he lamented that "the overwhelming money chase" has played too much of a role in the nomination process.
Dole declined to endorse any of her rivals during a morning news conference in Washington, although a senior adviser in her campaign predicted that she eventually would do so.
Asked about her interest in the vice presidency, which even many of her supporters believed was her real goal in running this year, Dole, 63, left the door wide open. "I've been running for president and running to win, so I've really not considered the vice presidency," she said. "So I have no comment on that. . . . We'll leave it right there."
Barely a week ago, Dole advisers were attempting to knock down rumors of an imminent departure from the race. But the candidate said she had reassessed her position during a long plane flight back from Seattle over the weekend. After analyzing the third-quarter financial reports -- Dole raised just $1.7 million in the third quarter compared with $20 million for Bush -- she decided she should get out.
Dole advisers said she would have had the money to contest Iowa and New Hampshire, but not the big states that would follow after that. "She wanted to wage a campaign across the country, not a narrow campaign focused on selected states," DiVall said.
Previous dropouts include former vice president Dan Quayle; former Tennessee governor and 1996 presidential candidate Lamar Alexander; Ohio Rep. John R. Kasich, chairman of the House Budget Committee; and New Hampshire Sen. Robert C. Smith, who quit the race and the party in the summer. Buchanan has said that he will decide next week whether to seek the Reform Party nomination.
Staff writer David Von Drehle and researcher Ben White contributed to this report.