THE REPUBLICANS left their San Diego convention with a bounce in their step, buoyed by rebounding poll numbers and a renewed enthusiasm from party activists. Post-convention polls showed the Dole-Kemp ticket slicing into President Clinton's once commanding lead both nationally and in key battleground states.
Three events combined to rejuvenate the Dole campaign which just weeks ago was stumbling along without money or message. The announcement of the Dole tax plan, with its call for a sweeping 15 percent across the board tax cut as well as other tax cuts for families, businesses and investors, gave the campaign a central theme that united the party. The selection of Jack Kemp for the Vice Presidential nomination also played well in the media and with party regulars. Kemp, always a favorite of grassroots GOP activists, also put a jolt of electricity into the Dole effort with his energy, optimism, and enthusiasm. Finally, the four-day convention went smoothly, with winning prime-time speeches by Colin Powell, Elizabeth Dole, Kemp and the nominee himself being broadcast to a national audience.
The campaign then left the city by the sea and took to the road, with stops in Denver, at the Illinois State Fair, and in Buffalo, Jack Kemp's hometown. In Buffalo, Dole and Kemp addressed an overflow rally of 7,500 cheering supporters who turned out to welcome their hometown hero who was once a championship quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. The team them moved on to other battleground states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Dole and Kemp campaigned together until the week of August 26, when the two were to take separate vacations during the Democratic Convention.
Another factor in the Dole resurgence is as old as politics itself: money. When Dole was formally named the GOP nominee, he was eligible for more than $62 million in federal matching funds, and the campaign was allowed to begin spending its own money again. Prior to the Republican convention, the Dole campaign (which spent heavily in the spring to win the GOP nomination) was hitting up against the pre-convention campaign spending limit, and was prohibited from spending. The campaign coasted into San Diego by using funds freed up by the Republican National Committee, but there are limits to how much the RNC can spend to prop up the Dole effort during this interim period.
With the influx of new dollars, the campaign can spend more freely to set up huge rallies (like the one in Buffalo), and to begin airing television commercials. The campaign began doing just that this week, airing ads in California, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Pennsylvania touting the Dole tax cut plan—thus ending a four-month string in which the Clinton-Gore team had the airwaves to themselves.
Post-convention polls show that Dole and Kemp have chipped away at the Clinton lead, which was holding steady at 20 points just weeks ago. According to most polls, the gap now stands at between six to 10 points. An Aug. 19 Newsweek poll showed the race to be “neck and neck” (Clinton-44 percent, Dole-42 percent), but the Aug. 17 ABC News tracking poll showed a more realistic 47-38 percent spread in favor of Clinton-Gore. Of course, the President himself can expect a boost from his own convention in Chicago.
Nearly as important as the national polls are surveys showing that the Dole-Kemp ticket was making headway in many key states, including California. A Field Poll released Aug. 20 showed that the Clinton lead in California had been cut by more than half, to just 10 points (43 percent to 35 percent). “No question, Dole has made a remarkable bounce,” said poll director Mervin Field. “The Dole movement is across the board. This is going to reawaken public interest, and it's now a contest.” Polling in battleground states like New Jersey, Illinois, and Ohio also show the race tightening considerably.
Many analysts are asking themselves what this newly-energized Dole campaign means for a crucial swing vote for 1996—religious Catholics. Can the GOPbuild on the party's 1994 showing, when a majority of Catholics voted Republican in congressional elections'?
“Bob Dole has really helped himself with the selection of Jack Kemp,” said Michael Ferguson, executive director of the Catholic Campaign for America. “Catholics are concerned with reaching out to the poor and impoverished. They want to help people in a positive, empowering way— and that is exactly what Jack Kemp has been talking about for years.”
“On another level, Kemp is solid on many issues that are important to Catholics,” he continued. “He is prolife and pro-family, and he is a big supporter of school choice. I think Kemp will be a big help with Catholics.”
Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.), a pro-life Catholic from Long Island said, “Catholics, especially ethnic Catholics, are really the classic Reagan Democrat swing voters.
Many experts now can envision a scenario in which Dole and Kemp pull off a near-miraculous comeback.
“They MayVoteRepublican, But they are on leave from the Democratic Party. They will only stick with us if we talk about issues that matter to them.
“The problems Republicans had with Catholics in 1995 was that we spent all our time talking about greeneyeshade budget issues,” he continued.
“You are not going to win over a Catholic family by talking about budget projections for the year 2002.”
Ferguson agrees. “Catholic want to know about issues that affect their family every day. They are very much concerned about practical everyday issues.
“Now Dole and Kemp are finally starting to connect,” said King, whose district is more than half Catholic (and where the largest employer is the Diocese of Rockville Centre). “The Dole tax plan and school vouchers mean a lot to Catholic families. Kemp also will resonate very well with Catholics. He speaks about issues in a way that appeals to the average family. He talks about basic values that middle- class Americans understand. These are the kind of things that Catholics want to hear.
“Most Catholics are not comfortable with evangelical rhetoric,” he said. “We believe in personal responsibility, but we are not vindictive. That is why Kemp will do well. He is compassionate, and he speaks the language of the middle class.”
Congressman Chris Smith (RN. J.), a pro-life Catholic, said, “This is a ‘Dream Team’ for church-going Catholics.
“Here we have two men who have a great track record on our issues, and that is in sharp contrast to Bill Clinton.
“Dole and Kemp have been with us on the issue of life, they have been with us on school choice and school prayer,” he continued. “They have always supported Judeo-Christian values. Bill Clinton on the other hand represents Joycelen Elder's values. He is the pro-abortion President. The contrast for Catholics could not be clearer.”
Assuming Dole can keep the heat on the President into the fall, the Republicans just may make enough headway with Catholics and other key swing voters to close the gap even further. In fact, many experts now can envision a scenario in which Dole and Kemp pull off a near-miraculous comeback—a notion which was almost unthinkable as recently as early August.
Charles Cook, a respected political professional and poll-watcher, recently mapped out a strategy for a Dole victory. Conceding the Democrats the Northeast and the Pacific coast states, Dole could still topple the President if he wins nearly all the southern states and Mountain states and most of the Rust Belt/Great Lakes region. “A disciplined campaign in which Dole taps into voters' distaste for Clinton while assuring them that he too has a modicum of empathy for their plight can simultaneously erode Clinton's support nationally while bolstering his own,” Cook opined in the Sept. 2 New Republic. “ Suddenly, a Dole victory is not so hard to imagine after all.”
Michael Barbera is based in Washington, D.C.