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Relaxed, Determined Dole Begins Primary Campaign

By Dan Balz
The Washington Post

The last time Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan., trudged through New Hampshire as a presidential candidate, he was on the road to defeat and angry with his fate. It was a different Dole who campaigned here Monday: more relaxed, less acerbic and determined this time to do it right.

He starts the 1996 presidential race as the clear front-runner for the Republican nomination, and was treated that way all weekend, with big crowds and friendly faces. "Mr. Dole, you're my hero," a man told him this morning at a Manchester restaurant. Dole looked at the man's cap, which read "Korean Veteran," and replied, "You're my hero."

His campaign evokes a proud and distant history of American power and leadership, for he is the last hurrah of the World War II generation that proved so politically durable until Bill Clinton captured the presidency from George Bush in 1992 and ushered in what many thought would be the Baby Boomer era of American politics.

Now Dole is back for what he describes as "one more mission, one more call to serve," and he will formally announce his candidacy in April in the week that will mark the 50th anniversary of the battle in which Dole was wounded in Italy and left with a crippled right arm.

He is the oldest man in the field at 71 and his 1996 campaign comes after three failed attempts at national office, including his bitter loss to Bush here in 1988, when he left the state snarling on national television, "Tell him to stop lying about my record."

"I was elected president of Iowa in 1988," Dole joked to the crowds Monday, recalling his victory in the Iowa caucuses that year. "I got dethroned eight days later in New Hampshire."

It was a terrible moment for Dole in what proved to be a disastrous campaign. He was beset by organizational problems, staff infighting and a strategy that left him with nowhere to go after Iowa and New Hampshire. His exit stamped him as a political slasher.

But by his own account, Dole begins this campaign more mellow. "I'm a little more realistic, a little more relaxed," he said Monday morning between stops.

"He's at peace with himself," said Barbara Russell, Dole's New Hampshire coordinator. "He said to me he learned that the guy with the best slicing machine doesn't win."

The cutting wit has been replaced for now with more mocking humor, and he recently appeared on "Late Show with David Letterman" to show his softer and funnier side, even bringing along a "Top Ten" list pared to seven items to illustrate how Republicans are shrinking everything. Today he peppered his appearances with jokes and one-liners.

"I never cared for Dole, but today he came across as so warm," said Mary Prouty, who was among more than 450 people who turned out to hear Dole speak in Nashua. "I was sort of iffy, but I have a much better response to him this time."

Dole's determination to run a better campaign - and his front-runner's stature - already are paying dividends here. Three newspaper polls published in the past few days show him with more than 40 percent of the vote against the current crop of rivals.

David Carney, a senior Dole adviser and a veteran of national and New Hampshire politics, said Dole has more than 20,000 volunteers in the state, compared with 6,400 on primary day in 1988.

Dole told his audiences Monday that two events over the past year persuaded him to run again for the presidency. The first came last summer when he went to Europe for ceremonies commemorating the D-Day invasion and a reunion of his old 10th Mountain Division in Italy.

"You get to thinking about your youth and your country and what's been happening for 50 years," he said. "You think about who did the fighting, who did the dying and who made the sacrifices, who crossed the beaches, who were flying the airplanes, who were on the ships. It was our generation."

Until then, Dole said he had accepted conclusions that Bush's defeat marked the end of the World War II generation in presidential politics.

The second event was the political earthquake of 1994, bringing in a Republican Congress. Dole decided, as he put it Monday, "One more time, and that's why I'm here today."

His appeal to his own generation was palpable. The crowds included many senior citizens, a few with military ribbons on their lapels, and they gave him the respect that a war hero and national leader might expect.

Not everyone found the evocation of World War II convincing. "He sounds like he's living in the past," said Mark Rufo, a lawyer from Concord. "World War II is about as relevant to us as the Trojan War. He doesn't give you a reason to vote for him, which is sad. I think he's a lot better and a lot smarter than he shows off."

Dole talked Monday about reining in the federal government, about "dusting off the 10th Amendment" and giving states more power. But he was short on specifics of what a Dole presidency would bring to America, other than the promise of strong leadership and a strong presence around the world.

"I'm not perfect," he said, "but I do believe I've been tested in a many ways and I do believe I've been able to provide leadership."