The first twist of the knife came the day after Bill Clinton let Bob Dole debate himself in Hartford, Connecticut. Dole had claimed that if he "just showed up" for the debate it would be a victory, but he didn't realize that Clinton would step back and let him dominate the stage.
It worked. Unable to decide which strategy he should use--gentle humor to make himself look warm or slashing attacks on Clinton to erode the president's support--Dole used both. For every joke he also slipped in a zinger, even dragging out his dead brother Kenny, the only person in America, apparently, who Dole thinks was a bigger liar than Bill Clinton. The result was predictable: Good Bob battled Bad Bob to a draw. And Clinton floated away unscathed.
To the Clinton campaign, the debate was never really the point. A week before it began, campaign strategists were already looking beyond it. They expected Clinton would win--this is a man who began speaking to large public groups while still in high school, after all. (And to give their man an added edge, Clinton's team held out for a ninety-minute-long format, which they thought would leave Dole tired and testy.) For the Clinton staff, the debate was merely another "must-win" moment for Bob Dole in which Bob Dole could not possibly win.
Dole saw the debate as he had seen his resignation from the Senate, as a way to energize his campaign. So he let himself be shipped down to Florida for day after day of debate prep, which he hated. Dole loathes rehearsal, repetition and phoniness (all cornerstones of modern campaigning). Finally, he just refused to go on. "I'm ready. Stop. The end," he said. "It's like filling up your tank with gas. It can only hold so much." And in case his staff missed the point, he threw a few pages from his briefing book over the balcony of his condo. (Dole was also unhappy that it was not sunny. He is obsessive about his tan, which he believes summons up the image of health. Others believe it summons up the image of melanoma.)
Debate prep is one of the few times in a campaign when the curtain is pulled back and the public can glimpse the people pulling the levers behind the scenes. Staffs prepare briefing books filled with sample questions and sample answers and have the candidates memorize them so they can regurgitate the proper response when the time comes. Bill Clinton loves debate prep, as he loves all political theater. He brought virtually the entire White House senior staff to the Chautauqua Institution's wooded retreat in upstate New York, where, dressed in a sweatshirt and pleated dress pants, he briefly strolled outside among the maples for the press. He held Hillary's hand. He watched his aides play touch football. He played golf. But most of the time his staff couldn't keep him out of the rehearsal hall.
Former Senator George Mitchell of Maine played Dole while various staffers played moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS until, one by one, the staffers got tired and bored and had to be replaced. Clinton never flagged, hour after hour. He was in what one senior staffer called his "teacher mode," a mode he likes better than all others, in which he gets to lecture, to show his grasp of issues, his range of thought. Bill Clinton never tires of Bill Clinton.
The ninety-five journalists and technicians who went to Chautauqua with Clinton saw him for a few brief moments, but each was planned carefully. The White House expends enormous time and effort on visuals. And the subtext for each is the same: Bill Clinton is a man of light. Light is illuminating. Light is warm. Light is upbeat, happy and good. At Clinton's outdoor rallies (and he prefers outdoor rallies), the stage is wherever possible positioned so the sun faces him. And on his first day at Chautauqua, Clinton strolled down a grassy slope to quip with reporters, hands in pockets, bright sunshine making his pink face glow.
On the same day TV carried pictures of Sunny Bill, it also showed Dark Dole in his harshly lit rehearsal room in Bal Harbour, Florida, a shadow slashing his face. True, Dole's dark, bushy eyebrows and deep eye sockets create an initial disadvantage, but that does not say much about the difference between the two campaigns: the difference is that one knows how to make pretty pictures and the other does not.
The first debate was simply a means to an end for Clinton. The true prize is creating a new Democratic Party out of the shattered remains of the old Republican one. Clinton intends to chip away at whole regions of the country that used to vote Republican (the West, the South), woo demographic groups that the GOP relies upon (moderate Republican women, Cuban-Americans) and court traditionally Republican interest groups (fat cat business people). Crushing Bob Dole has never really been the point of the campaign, although it will be necessary.
So the day after the debate, Clinton boarded Marine One in Hartford and choppered over to Stamford, a wealthy Connecticut town known for its corporate headquarters fifteen miles from Manhattan. The campaign staged the event in the three-tiered theater of a performing arts center, which not only lent it a little grandeur, but also provided professional lighting. The president was surrounded by a sea of blue-and gray-suited chief executive officers assembled to pay fealty.
Paul Allaire, the CEO and chairman of Xerox, stood at the microphone and said: "We each have a different reason for supporting the president. But we share a common view that the president is good for America and good for American business."
The audience exploded into applause, accompanied by hoots and hollers. Hoots and hollers from CEOs! Bill Clinton smiled, tossed his head back and laughed. William Esrey, chairman and CEO of Sprint, marched to the lectern next. Esrey, a Republican, is also the largest employer in the state of Kansas, the state Bob Dole calls home. "As a business leader, the invitation to come here today produced a dialogue within my company which I'm sure has been echoed in board rooms across America," Esrey said with a smile.
The audience burst into laughter. Sure, plutocrats don't usually endorse Democrats, but they can read an Electoral College map. And they've decided Bill Clinton is someone with whom they can do business. While there is little doubt that more big and small business people support the Republican Party than the Democratic one, 1996 is intended to be the start of a long-term shift. "Bill Clinton is good for American business!" Esrey said. "And he's not just good for American business, he's good for America!"
Clinton walked to the lectern. "I have wondered for years why the Democratic Party should not have at least as much or more support from American business as the other party," he said. The theater rocked with applause.
"I think there is a problem developing in their ranks," White House spokesman Mike McCurry said, "about traditional sources of Republican support drying up. [It] has got to be a little dispiriting for them."
Dispiriting? Naw. Bob Dole will go to San Diego days early to prep for the next debate, which will be held October 16. And that, too, will be a turning point. That, too, will be a decisive moment. That, too, will begin his upswing, his surge. His campaign simply has to make the right moves. Like when they flew master debater George Bush down to Florida to prep Dole for the last debate.
Actually, it made sense: Richard Nixon was unavailable.
Roger Simon is a nationally syndicated columnist whose book on the 1996 presidential campaign will be published next year by HarperCollins.
By Roger Simon