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Will Any Woman Do? The candidacy of Elizabeth Dole.

Elizabeth Dole is a long way from becoming the first woman President of the United States, but she has already achieved a political breakthrough that some of her fellow Republicans say is nothing short of a miracle. If polls are to be believed, Dole has closed the gender gap.

In a series of late spring surveys, the former Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Administration appointee proved a favorite among the same women voters who tipped the balance to Democrat Bill Clinton in the past two Presidential elections. A new Gallup poll pegs Dole as the third most admired woman in America, after First Lady Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey. And every recent national survey shows that, in hypothetical pairings, she maintains a solid lead over Democratic frontrunner Al Gore among women voters.

How does Dole do it?

Not by taking bold positions on issues of importance to the women's rights movement. Dole opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and extreme risk to the life of the mother. She recoils from the term "feminist." As Bush's Secretary of Labor, she battled against the Family and Medical Leave Act and other legislation backed even by moderate Republican women in Congress. And she regularly wins kudos from the same religious right leaders who have alienated female voters.

Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, sees Dole's success as an ironic consequence of the women's movement.

"We have been remarkably successful in communicating the importance of breaking down political barriers at every level," says Ireland. "Unfortunately, in an era where sound bites rule, we haven't been so successful in communicating the fact that not just any woman will do."

Dole is doing nothing to disabuse voters of the any-woman-will-do notion. She has spent the first months of her campaign shoring up support among voters who are inclined to like the idea of electing a woman President.

So far, Dole has dealt mostly in generalities. But the first woman in thirty-five years to seriously bid for her party's Presidential nod has distinguished herself from fellow Republican candidates by taking relatively moderate stances on issues such as gun control. GOP strategist Scott Reed says Dole is "attracting a coalition back to the GOP: a coalition of women and mothers."

On the stump, she appears to advocate a humane politics, promising "more freedom, more tolerance, more compassion." Unlike some of her hardline opponents, particularly Christian right activist Gary Bauer and commentator Pat Buchanan, she is quite comfortable reaching for a vague rhetorical middle ground with lines like: "We have seen real gains for minorities and women. And we must never go back. Not an inch."

There's plenty of evidence that the tactic is working. Dole draws larger crowds than any of the other candidates, and she runs second only to George W. Bush in national polls and in surveys of caucus and primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Polls suggest she has a strong appeal among women in those states. Dole reinforces that appeal, slipping phrases such as "let's make history" into her speeches and joking, "I can remember a time when the very idea of a woman as the equal of her male political counterpart seemed as unlikely as ... well, the idea that a professional wrestler could be elected governor of an American state."

"I have friends who are ready to work for her, no matter what her stand on the issues," declared Bea Francoeur, a leader of the New Hampshire Women's Forum, after Dole visited the state in February. Says Ireland, "I have even heard some NOW members say they would have a hard time choosing between Elizabeth Dole and Al Gore, simply because they believe so strongly in the importance of breaking through these barriers to women in politics."

To be sure, the barriers need breaking. A mere fifty-six U.S. House members are women, as are only nine of 100 U.S. Senators and only three of fifty governors. Despite the best efforts of the White House Project, a nonpartisan New York-based group that is seeking to create a favorable climate for women to seek the Presidency, no one but Dole is giving it a try.

Indeed, Dole is one of only a handful of politically prominent women who have done more than talk about running for the nation's top elective post--a group that includes former Senator Margaret Chase Smith, Republican of Maine, and former Representative Shirley Chisholm, Democrat of New York, who actually sought their party's nomination in 1964 and 1972, respectively. And former Representative Pat Schroeder, Democrat of Colorado, toyed with running in 1988. But Dole's as yet-unannounced campaign has already gotten further than those of any of her predecessors, with modest fundraising successes, endorsements from key players in early primary and caucus states, and warm press coverage.

If Dole were to make it to the White House, either as President or, perhaps more likely, as Vice President, what would she stand for? On many issues, she's right in line with the Christian Coalition. Founder Pat Robertson, a former Republican Presidential candidate himself, has made no endorsement, but he is hardly coy about his admiration for Dole, a fellow evangelical on whom he frequently lavishes praise.

"I actually thought that she may have been the Dole who should have been on the ticket in 1996," says Robertson. "She's a very important lady who's done a lot of very good work for America."

NOW's Ireland is not surprised by Robertson's warm response to Dole. "I think that the Pat Robertsons and the Ralph Reeds of the world have every reason to believe that if she were to get into the White House she would be there on their issues," Ireland says. Kate Michelman, head of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, worries that Dole might become "the friendly face" of efforts to restrict access to safe and legal abortions.

Dole quietly reassures the Robertsons, the Reeds, and the grassroots evangelicals that she is with them--writing in an April letter to Arizona GOP activists, "I would support the idea of a constitutional amendment" banning abortion. With the broader electorate, however, Dole, like Bush, plays it differently. "They are trying to obscure their position on the right to choose, and we can't let them get away with that," says Michelman.

"This is particularly true with Elizabeth Dole," Michelman explained in a recent article for Community Health Center Management magazine. "Understandably, many women are excited about a woman running for President, but for years women have fought against a double standard. We can't start holding candidates to different standards. We have to hold them all to the same standards--women and men alike. Women in particular need not assume that because she's a woman, she's pro-choice."

At the least, say those who have watched Dole, it is risky to suggest that the sixty-two-year-old Washington veteran would break the GOP mold that has pretty much been set since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Dole goes out of her way to portray herself as an heir to the Reagan mantle, trumpeting an endorsement from Reagan's U.N. ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and declaring, "I'm proud to have been a lieutenant in Reagan's army."

"If we remember Reagan, we will find our course again," Dole told one New Hampshire audience in a speech that outlined the rationale for her candidacy. "We'll stop looking for it in the confusion of focus groups and spin doctors; we'll find it by fixing on the North Star of moral and intellectual conviction."

Dole's invocation of Reagan is a reminder that she has never been one to break with conservative protocols.

Elizabeth Hanford grew up in Salisbury, North Carolina, where the town's center still features a statue of an angel cradling a Confederate soldier. She waxes nostalgic about Salisbury in speeches, telling the Detroit Economic Club of a childhood when "we lived in homes with locks we didn't turn, on streets where we played safely till dark on long summer evenings." In the pages of the 1996. joint autobiography she wrote with her husband, Dole described Salisbury as an idyllic town where she learned "a strong work ethic" and tried "to satisfy my goal-oriented parents." Her mother was a popular local hostess, her father a wealthy flower wholesaler and a McCarthy-era anti-Communist who built a Cold War bomb shelter in the backyard.

As a student at Boyden High School, "Liddy" was a super achiever: active in student government, the National Honor Society, the drama club, the school newspaper, and leading a group of popular girls called "the Debs." She was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" and even found time to regularly repaint the rims of her glasses so they would match her poodle skirts.

She was a leader in every sense, except one. She did not find time to address what many Americans saw as the most pressing issue of the American South in the mid-1950s: segregation. Dole graduated from high school in 1954, the year that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education started the process that would eventually integrate schools such as Boyden.

An active local chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) worked to build racial harmony in Salisbury in those days, but the consensus among local observers is that Dole didn't go in for that sort of thing.

"I wouldn't say she was active in NCCJ or integration or any of that," says a member of Salisbury's small Jewish community, who knows Dole and who was active in the civil rights movement.

At Duke University, where Dole was named "Leader of the Year" in 1958, she continued to avoid active involvement in the burgeoning civil rights movement. While racial moderates such as Terry Sanford, who in 1960 would be elected governor, were pushing North Carolina to break ranks with the rest of the segregationist South, Dole was campaigning for May Queen and joining "White Duchy," an exclusive sorority.

Ellen Bradley Cole, a Duke grad from the same era, said of Dole: "She didn't make waves, and most certainly she didn't take risks. She was the type who always wanted smooth sailing."

Dole's career has displayed that same aversion to wave-making. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she likes to refer to herself as a "pioneer." But Elizabeth Dole has generally been what Elizabeth Dole needed to be in order to get ahead. A Democrat who worked for Lyndon Johnson in the early 1960s, she became an independent in time to join the Nixon Administration as a deputy assistant to the President for consumer affairs. Nixon made her a member of the Federal Trade Commission when she was dating his staunchest defender, Kansas Senator Robert Dole, the Republican National Committee chair during Watergate. By the time Bob Dole was tapped to be the Republican Vice Presidential candidate in 1976, Elizabeth Dole was a Republican.

In 1980, after her husband's first Presidential campaign collapsed, she scrambled aboard the Reagan bandwagon, serving two years as an assistant to the President before her appointment as Secretary of Transportation in 1983. In that Cabinet post, Dole was, indeed, one of Reagan's loyal lieutenants. She led the fight to privatize Conrail, the publicly held freight railroad. And she stalled pro-consumer safety initiatives, including efforts to require car makers to install air bags and automatic seat belts.

Dole did not earn high marks at the Department of Transportation. A 1992 Washington Post analysis of the department was particularly scathing, describing Dole as "a purely political appointment." Post writer Don Phillips commented: "Dole's term received bad marks all around, and she could easily be in the running for worst Transportation Secretary. She couldn't stand bad publicity and was often accused of governing by press release. The industry journal, Traffic World, editorialized that her term was little more than a planned media event."

After another sail on a sinking Bob Dole for President ship in 1988, Elizabeth Dole joined the Bush Administration as Secretary of Labor. In this position, she showed her conservative colors by working to fix the crack in the glass ceiling that had allowed her advancement. When it appeared that pressure from the women's movement and organized labor would finally succeed in winning enactment of a strong Family and Medical Leave Act, Dole led the opposition. She also battled to undermine minimum-wage protections, advocating development of a two-tier system that would have included a "training wage" for teenagers.

As Secretary of Labor it was her brief to protect the interests of American workers, but she emerged as a militant free trader--a stance she maintains in this campaign. She told the Detroit Economic Club in April that she wants to extend the North American Free Trade Agreement to include Central and South America. Congress has denied the Clinton Administration "fast-track" authority to negotiate such an extension, but Dole says it must be awarded "to his successor, whoever she may be."

Dole left the Bush Administration in 1991, moving several blocks from the Labor Department to the American Red Cross headquarters. She likes to portray her stint at the agency--which has more than 30,000 employees and 1.3 million volunteers--as evidence of her executive skills. And she did earn some high marks for using her connections to raise $3.4 billion for the charity. But, as a Business Week report published shortly after Dole left the Red Cross presidency in January argued, "Dole stresses the sunny side. Reality is more complex." While Business Week analysts gave Dole an A+ for public relations, she got C's for management skills and employee relations.

Dole got far better grades as the friendly face of husband Bob's unsuccessful 1996 Presidential campaign. At the Republican National Convention, she stole the show with what has come to be known as "the Liddy stroll," a down-with-the-audience Oprah-style performance that traded substance for Southern charm, family lore, and nostalgia for an America that sounds a lot like Salisbury in the 1950s.

While Bob was ill at ease on the religious-right circuit, Elizabeth became a more familiar figure in America's pulpits than fellow North Carolinian Billy Graham. She told stories of playing the piano for the men's Bible class at her childhood church in Salisbury. She spoke of her commitment to read the Bible at least thirty minutes each day. And she engaged in the requisite Hollywood bashing. She proved she knows how to speak the language of the party's evangelical base, and she has built connections that now help shield her from criticism.

"When she goes off the rightwing script on gun control or some other issue, she knows that she has cover," says Peter Montgomery, a senior policy analyst with People for the American Way, which monitors the religious right. "She starts from a place of a pretty warm embrace from the religious right, and that gives her room to maneuver in ways that some of the other Republicans can't."

Already, Pat Robertson has appeared on 60 Minutes to subtly defend Dole's downplaying of abortion as a central issue in the 2000 campaign. And if Dole makes muted feminist noises with her "Let's Make History!" rhetoric, don't expect Robertson and his allies to complain.

"Robertson and a lot of other people in leadership roles on the right are tired of losing. They've tried the litmus-test approach, and they know it hasn't worked--especially with women," says Montgomery. "They don't mind when some moderate signals are sent if that closes the gender gap and gets them into the White House. They know that, if they can get an Elizabeth Dole in the White House, as President or Vice President, they're going to be satisfied on their issues. She's got a long record that tells them that, on the fundamental issues, she's their kind of conservative."

John Nichols is editorial page editor for The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. He writes about electoral politics for The Progressive.
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Title Annotation:presidential candidacy
Author:Nichols, John
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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