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GOP Pessimistic on Dole's Chances, Urges Focus on Control of Congress

By Robert Shogan
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

With President Clinton having escaped relatively unscathed from the final campaign debate, even some Republican strategists conceded Thursday that the White House appears beyond the reach of challenger Bob Dole.

Reflecting this attitude, political operatives in both parties are focusing on the presidential contest mainly to gauge its impact on the struggle for control of Congress.

For their part, Dole's managers rejected such negative judgments, along with post-debate poll results that showed their candidate making no headway, and announced a costly new initiative they claimed is designed to win California and its 54 electoral votes.

The strategy calls for Dole to spend more than $1 million a week in advertisements in California and for either himself, his wife, Elizabeth, or running mate Jack Kemp to make frequent appearances in the state between now and Election Day.

But the downside to this decision is that, as the campaign acknowledged, it means stripping away candidate time and funds from three other potentially key swing states - Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut - where Dole needs every penny and every minute to have a chance of winning. And the decision to pull back in these states follows a move earlier this week to reduce advertising in Ohio.

Even as these strategic shifts were being made, Republicans who had been hoping that Dole, by mounting an assault on Clinton's character during the Wednesday night debate in San Diego, would somehow alter the dynamics of the presidential race admitted their disappointment over his performance.

"He didn't make the case that Clinton isn't fit to be president," William Kristol, one of the architects of the GOP's 1994 midterm election triumph, said in a radio interview in Washington. "I think most Republicans feel the presidential campaign is basically over, barring an act of God."

Similarly, John Petrocik, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and sometime GOP campaign consultant, said of the presidential race: "I see one battleship under full steam and the other with broken screws rolling in the tide. I think the contest is over and has probably been over for a long time."

And Don Sipple, who had the task of shaping Dole's campaign message until last September when he quit in a dispute over policy and power, said he views the presidential campaign as "pretty much over."

Some Republican professionals are hoping that Dole will use his resources and energies in ways that help the GOP maintain control of the Senate and House. Party leaders are particularly concerned about the latter chamber, given recent polls suggesting Democratic prospects for a takeover are improving.