The famous “Dole Stroll” took a decidedly different turn last week.
Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole is known for her Oprah-like strolls during speeches to past Republican National Conventions. But Dole skipped last week's GOP convention in Minnesota, opting instead for a stroll around the shop floor of Advanced Direct, a small Greensboro direct-mail firm where she picked up the endorsement of a small-business group. The clicketyclack of mailing machines replaced the cheering throngs of delegates.
That's because this summer has been a wake-up call for Dole.
One of the best-known women in American politics, Dole is in an unexpectedly competitive race with Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan.
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Dole was in North Carolina last week to campaign, and she began some counterpunching with TV ads and mailings attacking Hagan's record. Dole is trying to change the chemistry of the race.
“It's been a lot of cutesy stuff up to now,” said Dole strategist Tom Fetzer, a former Raleigh mayor. “But on Labor Day, the bell rings.”
A year ago, few people thought Dole would be fighting for her political life. In 2002, she easily defeated a strong Democrat foe, Erskine Bowles, who is now president of the 16-campus University of North Carolina system.
This year, most of the big names in the Democratic Party, including Gov. Mike Easley, passed on challenging Dole's bid for a second term. Democrats finally recruited Hagan, a veteran state senator and former corporate lawyer.
But Dole has been hammered in recent weeks by a series of ads from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, an offshoot of the national Democratic Party trying to elect Democrats to the Senate. The most talked-about ad features two old codgers in rocking chairs, portraying Dole as old, ineffective and closely tied to an unpopular President Bush.
Dole's numbers in the polls have been sinking, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has indicated it plans to spend millions more on behalf of Hagan. That has some Republicans worried.
“Any time you are even and the other guy is about to spend (millions) on ads, you have a world of trouble,” said Carter Wrenn, a veteran Republican strategist.
“She has to define Hagan and attack Hagan before the race gets out of control,” Wrenn said. “Nobody knows anything about Hagan or her voting record. If Hagan is a liberal Democrat, Elizabeth Dole has got to get that out there pretty quick.”
Dole goes on attack
Last week, Dole and her allies began doing just that.
The Dole campaign began running a TV ad featuring a yapping dog and references to “Fibber Kay Hagan.” The state Republican Party stuck with the animal theme with a new mailer, featuring a sheep, that says “Kay Hagan is Trying to Pull the Wool Over our Eyes.” It says that although Hagan decries high gas prices, she and her husband benefit from the prices because they own stock in oil wells in Oklahoma, Indiana, West Virginia and Ohio. The National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee ran a TV ad awarding Hagan a gold medal for running up the state's debt, for government waste and for raising taxes.
Hagan said the new round of attacks indicates that things are not going well for Dole.
“I've never been called a liar before,” Hagan said. “She has panicked, and she is scared.”
Dole's situation this year is different from 2002, when she was elected as part of a Republican tide as the nation rallied around President Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Bush campaigned for Dole more than any other candidate in 2002 except for his brother, then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
But Bush's approval ratings have plummeted, and Dole seems unlikely to have Bush come into North Carolina to campaign for her this time. (First Lady Laura Bush attended a fundraiser for Dole in the mountains in July.)
In 2002, Dole's gold-plated political resume – U.S. transportation secretary, U.S. labor secretary, president of the American Red Cross, White House aide, former presidential candidate – was a big advantage.
But in a year when many voters are disenchanted with Washington – and the mantra of both parties is change – her resume could turn into a liability.
“Forty years of Washington experience may be the worst thing you could have in this year's political climate,” said Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist.
Hagan has portrayed Dole as a creature of Washington, but an ineffective one who has lost touch with her Tar Heel constituents.
“I don't think she understands the issues,” Hagan said in an interview. “She lives in the Watergate, and she hangs around special interest lobbyists and not here on the ground in North Carolina.”
Dole counters that she has a long record of accomplishments, from helping engineer a federal tobacco buyout to protecting military bases in North Carolina against closure. Dole said she has visited all 100 counties in the state at least twice, some multiple times.
“I hate to say it, but (Hagan's) strategy is to tear down Elizabeth Dole,” Dole said an interview.
At this juncture in the 2002 campaign, Dole had a 10-point lead in the polls over Bowles. She ended up winning, 54 percent to 45 percent.
But the Democratic primary was delayed that year, and Bowles did not win the nomination until September, giving him little time to build a case against Dole. Bowles was reluctant to go negative against a female candidate – a gender difference that no longer applies.
Dole still has a number of advantages: a famous name, an ability to raise large amounts of money and North Carolina's history of electing Republicans to the U.S. Senate, especially in presidential years. (The last time a Democrat was elected to the Senate from North Carolina in a presidential year was in 1968, when Sen. Sam Ervin, an entrenched conservative Democrat, won re-election.)
Dole's campaign has raised $11.2 million and had $2.7 million on hand as of July 30, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Hagan had raised $3 million and had $1.2 million hand.
But the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is the great equalizer. It has reserved $8 million in TV air time in North Carolina.
Steven Greene, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said that polls are only a snapshot of the Senate race and that numbers could shift after “a full-out assault on Kay Hagan, which is sure to come.”
“What we see in the polls now is that Kay Hagan has been going both barrels at Elizabeth Dole for a month while Elizabeth Dole has been holding her fire,” Greene said. “What will be interesting to see is the polls on October 1.”