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Dole, Clinton Both Flexing Their Middles

Sun., June 9, 1996, midnight

Despite heated campaign rhetoric and deep divisions in their parties, President Clinton and Sen. Bob Dole are clinging tightly to the political middle in a contest of two nimble pragmatists.

There is a simple reason for such aggressive moderation: The middle is where the votes are and where America is - less ideological, less partisan, but more politically volatile than ever.

The struggle to win the affections of middle-class, centrist voters has presented some extraordinary political Ping-Pong in recent weeks.

Clinton surprised Dole by endorsing Wisconsin’s tough welfare-reform plan. He also came out for school uniforms and curfews, needled Dole on lack of action on balancing the budget and announced a tax-credit plan to help students pay for the first two years of college.

Dole, the presumptive Republican nominee, moved toward the center on abortion Thursday in proposing the GOP platform include a “declaration of tolerance” on the issue.

The senator also has accused Clinton of policy piracy, saying the president doesn’t really mean what he says when he shifts toward the center on welfare reform and a balanced budget.

The White House makes no apologies for trying to push Dole further to the right by co-opting his issues. So far, however, Dole has not taken the bait, realizing he cannot stray too far from the center.

“Both of them want to show themselves in sync with mainstream American values and priorities,” said Democratic political consultant Alan Secrest.

He said that while Clinton must overcome perceptions that he is a directionless president “not particularly burdened with a value-laden vision,” Dole must set himself apart from Congress and House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Dole’s resignation from the Senate was designed to do just that, though he has not gained much in the polls.

Dole’s record shows that he is more conservative than Clinton, but not so far right as the new class of conservative Republicans elected to Congress in 1994.

The president fancies himself a “new Democrat” who eschews his party’s traditional big-government philosophy in favor of more fiscal discipline and personal responsibility. But he prefers to call himself a progressive rather than a conservative - a label that some consider fuzzy.

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