Dole Steps to the Fore

Posted March 24, 2004 at 6:19pm

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) told a national businesswomen’s conference Wednesday that a woman’s success should not be measured in career achievements, but rather in terms of personal happiness and satisfaction.

“I don’t believe there is one path for women or one nature to fulfill,” Dole said in the keynote address to the Executive Women in Government Summit and Training Conference. “Real fulfillment — real empowerment is often different than we imagine and better than we plan. And that’s when we say to ourselves, ‘This is it. This is real. The rest is just decoration.’”

What makes Dole’s remarks carry weight is that the Senator’s career is exactly what has defined her own life in the eyes of the public, from her service as a Cabinet secretary and president of the American Red Cross to candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and eventual election to the Senate.

The speech delivered at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the latest example of how she is beginning to step back into the national spotlight — an arena she has largely shunned since being elected to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Jesse Helms (R) in 2002.

Over the past year, Dole has focused almost exclusively on issues of matter to her state, a decision similar to one made by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for which she won wide praise after being elected in 2000. But just as Clinton eventually broadened her legislative scope beyond her home state, Dole now appears to be doing the same.

The North Carolina Senator downplays the idea that she is re-emerging on the national scene, but recent actions and appearances suggest otherwise. In the wake of the devastating Dec. 26 earthquake that struck Iran, Dole called Secretary of State Colin Powell and asked if she could lead a humanitarian mission to that country; and just last month she appeared at two national news conferences on the same day to promote medical malpractice reform legislation.

In the coming weeks, Dole is expected to lock horns with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in a very public fight over whether Congress should impose stricter regulations on the mortgage giants.

On the political front, Dole will launch a political action committee next month to raise money, which she will then donate to her GOP colleagues and Republican candidates.

“I think it is just a natural thing,” Dole said in a recent interview about how her career in the Senate has evolved.

But the North Carolina Republican stressed that this is not part of a strategic plan she devised once she was elected. “I haven’t thought of it that way,” she said. “I think it is just inevitable.”

Dole joins Clinton and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) as newer Members of the Senate who achieved national name recognition long before joining the world’s most exclusive club. Over the years, Dole has simultaneously worn two hats: that of a loyal wife (she is married to former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole [R-Kan.]) as well as a successful professional woman in her own right. Both characterizations have won her a loyal fan base, especially among Republican women.

Fully aware of this star appeal, Republican leaders said they are eager to use Dole on the campaign trail this year, much in the same way Democrats have utilized Clinton.

“I would like to deploy Elizabeth as much as possible,” said Sen. George Allen (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I guarantee you, people will want her.”

Dole currently serves as chairman of the Inner Circle, an NRSC internal fundraising arm that asks donors to contribute $2,000 a year, and she is expected to play a prominent role in Rep. Richard Burr’s (R-N.C.) bid to replace retiring Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).

“She can be a big help in North Carolina and she can be a big help in South Carolina,” said Allen, referring to the two open-seat contests in the Carolinas this year. “But North Carolina will be her primary responsibility, because we need two Senators from North Carolina rather than canceling each other’s votes.”

Already, Dole has hit the campaign trail on behalf of her colleagues. Last year, she appeared at no fewer than seven fundraisers or political events for Republicans ranging from House Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) to Sen. Jim Bunning (Ky.). In January, she attended a fundraiser for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) during the GOP retreat in Philadelphia, and there are plans for her to appear at an upcoming fundraiser for Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). And Dole said she is prepared to increase her political travel schedule on behalf of her Senate colleagues and President Bush as the election unfolds.

“When they ask, I will say yes,” she said. “I really believe in doing that.”

Dole’s willingness to help her colleagues is paying off. More than 30 Members have signed on to the Congressional Host Committee for the April 29 fundraiser for her new PAC, The Leadership Circle.

But Dole is careful to emphasize her top priority remains North Carolina, a state that has been hit hard by the recession. She can cite the recent layoffs figures for both the Eastern and the Western part of her state, and she talks emphatically about the “Dole Plan,” a multiple-page list of goals she promised to advocate for during the 2002 election. Dole describes the document as her “campaign bible.”

“These are the commitments I made in my campaign as I toured the hundred counties more than once, and I wanted to be focused on carrying those out in my early years here,” she said.

Clinton, whose husband — former President Bill Clinton — defeated Dole’s husband in the 1996 White House contest, had high praise for the North Carolina Republican.

“I think she has really worked hard and has done what you need to do when you arrive here, which is to understand how the Senate works and to figure out what you want to work on,” Clinton said. “I think she has really performed admirably in the way that she has really dug in hard to learn the job.”

Even though she is the spouse of a former Senator, Dole acknowledged there was still a learning curve for her when she arrived because at the same time her husband was casting roll call votes and attending committee hearings she was pursuing her own career outside of the Senate.

“It would have been wonderful if I had, had the time to sit in the balcony and observe all of this,” she said. “I couldn’t.”

Even to this day, Dole said she rarely seeks out her husband’s counsel on Senate matters because he is too busy with his own career and charitable interests that in recent months have included considerable travel. For the most part, she said, discussion about work is left at the threshold when they walk in the door at the end of the day.

“Home should be [where you] leave all of that behind,” Dole said. “You got [to have] a little time to relax to watch “Law & Order” together, which we love.”

At times, Dole has faced criticism for being too conscious of her image, a charge that both she and her GOP colleagues dismiss. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) gave Dole high marks for her quick wit for referring to her husband’s role as spokesman for Viagra during an August 2003 event in Pascagoula, Miss.

“I am introducing her and I am really laying it on heavy like I do — and I said, ‘I have never seen another United States Senator come to the Senate and start looking better and younger. Elizabeth, how do you do that?’” Lott recalled in a recent interview. “She gets up and says, ‘Thank you for your nice remarks about my appearance. You didn’t see Bob Dole’s TV spot.’”

Lott added, “The house went wild. She is just good. She is going to be a real player here.”

Back in 1999, Dole sought to be the ultimate political player as she launched a bid for the White House. Dole’s campaign never gained the momentum it needed to head into the Iowa caucuses, and she abandoned her bid in October. Reflecting on her brief bid for the White House, Dole said her regret is that she wished she had started her campaign earlier but believes her action might help pave the way for a woman to be president in the not so distant future.

“It was quite obvious by October I would never have the money to do that because it was just gone,” she said about running a formidable campaign. “So that is when I decided to leave the race, but not at all sorry that I did it.

“I think it did push the ball down the road a little further for woman,” she added.

As for launching another bid for the White House in 2008, Dole said right now, “It is not something that is in my focus.

“It is not something I am saying ‘OK, this is what we are aiming for,’” she said.

Dole offered a similar response when asked if she would be interested in Senate leadership position.

“The best way I could put it is if the leadership was interested in my doing something, I would be happy to sit down and talk about it,” she said. “I am not out campaigning for something. [I am] just trying to do a solid good job and carry out the commitments I made.”