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Bob Dole Reflects on Running While Serving

Dole has advice for senators running for president. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Bob Dole knows a thing or two about running for president while serving in the Senate.  

The 91-year-old Kansas Republican ran several times and got the party nomination once, and all as a sitting senator, mostly as the Republican leader, with an outstanding vote participation record.  

“Well, you’re trying to ride two horses at once,” Dole said in a recent phone interview, pointing out that, as leader, he had a tougher time than other senators. “I was supposed to provide leadership in the Senate, so I had to cut back on campaigning. But I could do it on weekends and certainly when the Senate wasn’t in session on some Fridays.” Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa — whose vote participation record is legend in the Capitol's marbled halls, and who Dole regards as “the hardest-working senator” — held up Dole as the gold standard of juggling senatorial duties with a presidential campaign in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call.  

Two of the three officially running Republican senators received modest criticism for lackluster voting participation records, but Dole, a former attendance hawk, conceded some votes would likely be missed and candidates have to judge when to show up and when to let one go.  

“I wouldn’t recommend they miss all the votes," Dole said. "Particularly those who want to run again — that would be on their record.” He added Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who announced he wouldn’t be running for re-election to his Senate seat , “probably has more leeway than Rand Paul or Ted Cruz.”  

Cruz notably skipped the confirmation vote for Attorney General Loretta Lynch after repeatedly vowing to oppose her nomination in order to attend a fundraiser for his presidential campaign.  

Dole chuckled when asked about a time in 1995 he and then-Majority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., scolded the Senate for missing Monday votes.  

“We’re paid to be there,” Dole said. “I know many of these senators live quite a ways away from D.C. … But yeah, we did — I wouldn’t say threatened — but we’re supposed to be there making things happen and I think we did the right thing.”  

Dole said for presidential aspirants to succeed, they must get out and meet the voters and pitch their vision for the country. It might sound pretty intuitive, but Dole said it was one of his weaknesses.  

“My trouble was staying on message,” he said. “I always tried to mix humor into my speeches, and sometimes we were having so much fun that I forgot what I was supposed to tell the people.”  

Dole stopped short of endorsing any candidate, but said he is "interested" in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and noted a close relationship with the Bush family.  

Governors such as Walker and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal have argued governors are best suited to be president because of their executive experience, while senators such as Rubio counter that a senator’s foreign policy experience gives them the advantage.  

The country has favored governors as president in recent times, dating back to former Democratic President John F. Kennedy, who was a senator from Massachusetts from 1953 to 1960, Dole said. (Other senators, such as Richard M. Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson, went the V.P. route.)  

“Well, [President Barack] Obama was senator for a couple of days,” Dole conceded. “But the last senator really was Jack Kennedy who got elected.”  

Dole agreed that in general, governors are better suited to be president, but there are advantages to being in the Senate too.  

“I think the governors have a point, but I think if you’ve served in the Senate for a few terms, you’ve got a pretty good feel for what people really want done and what changes ought to be made," he said. "Governors don’t have the foreign policy experience you get in the Senate.”  

(Dole ventured further to The New York Times , saying it "might be the year of the governor.")  

But any advantage can be a disadvantage in politics depending on how it’s spun. “I was there 28 years, but I was accused of having too much experience,” Dole said. “I was a ‘Washington insider.’”  

Particularly since the passage of sex trafficking legislation a few weeks ago, Republican senators lauded productivity. Dole agrees.  

“I just talked to [Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell [the other day] and I think they are getting back to normal,” Dole said. “Every committee is meeting, they’re starting to crank out legislation and they’re receiving bills from the House. You got to give them a little time, but I think you’re going to start seeing a lot of action in both the House and the Senate.”  

Much has been made about an intraparty conflict between tea party and establishment Republicans. But Dole said this is nothing new.  

“I consider myself a traditional Republican Conservative, but there were some who felt that wasn’t enough,” Dole said. “But we got along and we were able to work together, except maybe in some cases that I don’t remember.”  

Dole, now special counsel at Alston & Bird, noted his thoughts on the Senate could only be so deep because he is no longer there, but it’s clear he’s still very in touch with Washington.  

“That’s a good paper,” he said about Roll Call.  

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Topics: 2016 poli