Witty, adult, statesmanlike Bob Dole tonight takes on an opponent who has haunted him throughout his political career: an unpredictable, surly, snarly, acid-tongued curmudgeon named Bob Dole.
In comparison to the hurt that Dole can do to himself in a debate, President Clinton is no threat at all.
Debates are supposed to help the challenger. Dole appears tonight on stage for the first time as the president’s equal. All he needs to do is make himself appear to be an acceptable alternative to the incumbent president - as Jimmy Carter did to Gerald Ford in 1976 and Ronald Reagan did against Carter in 1980.
Carter showed that he was more than just a “Georgia peanut farmer.” And “Reagan convinced the public he wasn’t a nut case,” recalls his 1984 campaign manager Ed Rollins.
That’s all it took.
For Dole, it’s more complicated. Carter and Reagan were outsiders, relative unknowns on the national political stage. Dole is a familiar figure, and he has to destroy a stereotype described by White House aide George Stephanopoulos as a “dark, dour, Darth Vader candidate.”
The most damaging moment in Dole’s political career was his famous remark in a 1976 vice presidential debate against Walter Mondale that World Wars I and II, the Korean War and Vietnam were “all Democrat wars.”
What is most bizarre about this outburst is that it came in response to the following question: “Did you approve of President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon?”
Put on the defensive, Dole went off like a skyrocket. And in response to a question about Watergate, he blamed the Democrats for 1.6 million men killed and wounded in 20th century wars.
Dole has improved since 1976. His temper is more controlled. His dark eyes no longer dart nervously from side to side when a camera zooms in on him. He tries to smile more often. But he still erupts at times with flashes of resentment that are a reminder of the volcano that lurks within.
This is the weakness Clinton may try to exploit on Sunday night. White House aides say the president intends simply to present a positive agenda for the future rather than engage in a back and forth with Dole. But they all know that the real fireworks can come from the innocent-sounding, but partisan, remark that sends Dole into the stratosphere.
In debating the issues, Clinton may meet his match. Dole is an excellent debater, especially if the subject is legislation.
Unable to take notes because of his war injuries, he has developed a phenomenal memory. He can rattle off statistics, legislative proposals, the outcome of House and Senate votes and who made what deals in obscure conference committees.
But winning the debate is not enough for Dole, says Stephanopoulos. His real task is to change the nature of the race, in which he trails Clinton by 12 to 20 points in the polls. If the best debaters in each party actually won elections, Sunday night’s contest would be between Republicans Alan Keyes or Morry Taylor and Democrat Jesse Jackson, not Dole and Clinton.