The Two Days In October 1996 When Bob Dole Had About All Of Ohio He Could Take

Sep 28, 2018

This week's Tales from the Trail column will be the first of a two-parter on one of the most interesting people I have covered over the years, Sen. Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP nominee for president, and the highs and lows of running for president.

One thing about being a reporter covering presidential campaigns, which are about as high-stakes affairs as they come, is that you get to the candidate when he or she is riding high.

And you also often get to see them at their lowest points, when their campaigns are about to crash and burn. And they know it.

In 1996, as politics reporter for the Enquirer, I saw Republican Bob Dole at both ends of the spectrum.

Unfortunately for Dole, the low point came at the end of the campaign.

I saw it in mid-October 1996, when Dole's floundering campaign to unseat incumbent Democrat Bill Clinton came to Ohio – then, as always, a key state – for a two-day bus tour mostly through a series of heavily Republican small towns and suburbs, the bedrock of Ohio's GOP base.

It was pretty much a disaster from start to finish. It was the death throes of losing campaigns. To paraphrase the candidate, I knew it; Bob Dole knew it; the American people knew it.

Still, he soldiered on.

You see, politics aside, I liked Bob Dole as a human being – he was smart, he was funny and he was a genuine American hero, having lost the use of his right arm and suffering from numbness in his left arm when he was severely wounded as a young soldier in the 10th Mountain Division fighting in the Apennine Mountains of Italy in the waning days of World War II.

He almost always carried a pen in his right hand so people would not grasp it to shake hands. I think I made a good impression on him when we first met when I extended my left hand to him.

Dole hit the campaign trail after being crowned the GOP candidate at a Republican National Convention in San Diego. Dole chose former congressman Jack Kemp as his running mate.

The only good thing you could say about the convention itself was that the weather in San Diego was really, really nice.

The thousands of delegates, alternates and GOP hangers-on who attended the San Diego convention left a somewhat dispirited lot. After all, they could read – and the polls they read looked dismal with Clinton well over 50 percent, even with H. Ross Perot in the race pulling away some votes as a third-party candidate.

Even though Clinton was consistently maintaining poll numbers over 50 percent through the fall campaign, Dole campaigned like a trooper, even though he was 73 years old at the time (the senator was born in 1923).

Ohio was, as it always was in those days, a crucial state. Four years before, Democrat Bill Clinton had won it by a small margin over incumbent Republican George H.W. Bush.

The Republicans needed to win Ohio back if they had any hope at all of defeating Clinton. Then, as now, no Republican had ever won the White House without wining Ohio.

This is why Dole's handlers made sure he spent an extraordinary amount of time in the Buckeye State, seemingly running him in and out of here every week. That's why I ended up spending so much time with him during that campaign, as opposed to only a few times with Clinton.

On Oct. 10, less than four weeks before the Nov. 5 election, the Dole campaign landed in Cincinnati to begin a two-day, 10-stop campaign swing throughout Ohio

It began with a mid-morning rally in Fountain Square with Dole and Kemp that drew a sizable crowd. You could see that the presidential candidate was visibly pleased by the turnout, but I wondered then – and wonder now – how many of those people had come out to see one of the rock stars of American politics: retired Gen. Colin Powell.

There were many in that crowd who had wanted Powell to run for the GOP nomination himself, but, while he flirted with it, he decided against it.

Of course, Dole knew that Powell was the star. Of all the events of the two-day trip through Ohio, this was the one that seemed to charge him up the most. He even started singing "Soul Man" with the warm-up band. Well, the chorus anyway.

Colin Powell joined Dole on stage during Dole's campaign rally in Cincinnati on Oct. 10, 1996.
Credit Eric Draper / AP

Powell introduced Dole to the crowd.

"My task specifically is to introduce to you a straightforward man who has a straightforward vision for America,'' Powell said.

Dole returned the compliment.

"He's got vim and vinegar, vitality and he's going to be one of the stars of our administration," Dole said.

After the rally, Dole got onto the campaign bus – which was followed by a press bus – while Powell and Kemp went on their own to campaign elsewhere.

The buses headed straight for South Broadway in downtown Lebanon for a stop at The Village Ice Cream Parlor. Candidates descend on the picturesque (and tasty) ice cream shop every election season like a plague of locusts.

Dole – who worked behind the counter as a youngster at a soda fountain in his hometown of Russell, Kansas – watched as they prepared him a thick, rich chocolate milkshake, which he gulped down in record time.

Then he made a quick stop at the horse farm near Bloomingburg in Fayette County, where a modest crowd of supporters had gathered.

Then, the caravan moved on to make an unscheduled stop in Circleville, which, in a week or two, would once again host the famous Circleville Pumpkin Festival.

Dole shook hands with a number of folks in downtown Circleville before climbing back on the bus.

As the bus started to pull away, at least a dozen Republican women of Circleville began chasing the bus on foot, each carrying a pumpkin pie they wanted to give to Dole and his campaign staff.

Finally, somebody on the Dole bus noticed the pie ladies hot-footing it down Main Street and Dole told them to pull over. The women rushed up to the door and started shoveling in the pumpkin pies and shaking hands with the candidate. They even bought paper plates, napkins and plastic forks and knives for the pumpkin pie feast.

The caravan started moving again. Even though I was in the second bus with the rest of the media mob, I could hear Dole shouting through a bullhorn, making lots of nummy and yummy noises, as if he were busy wolfing down multiples pies.

Good pie! Mmmm…..Good pie! Circleville makes good pie!

Of course, we on the press bus didn't get any nummy, yummy pumpkin pie.

This bullhorn business went on until the GOP women of Circleville were well outside of hearing distance, and then it was on to a 20 or so mile ride to Lancaster in southeastern Ohio.

The Dole entourage headed to the Fairfield County Fair in Lancaster, where it was pouring down rain and the crowd was fairly large for as bad as the weather was.

You could tell at this point that Dole was starting to get tired; it had been a long day, with multiple campaign stops and travel on a bus, which is never particularly comfortable no matter how modern and customized it is.

Bob Dole charted a two-day course throughout the crucial swing-state of Ohio leading up to the 1996 election. He ultimately lost to Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton.
Credit Jennifer Merritt / WVXU

It always made me tired, too.

But he hung in there with the Fairfield County fairgoers, blistering Clinton in the pouring rain.

"I want to welcome you all to this Bill Clinton retirement party here in Fairfield County,'' Dole said. "I don't want you to get wet; I want you to be healthy to vote on Nov. 5."

He stuck around for a somewhat soggy fireworks show at the fairground. Then it was back in the bus for a 30-some mile trip to Columbus, where he would stay overnight.

That in and of itself was out of character for Dole. He always campaigned hard, but he always tried to end the campaign day with a flight back to Washington where he could sleep in his own bed in the Watergate apartment complex.

The man simply didn't like staying in hotels.

But he did this time, and the next morning he flew to Toledo with his entourage for a campaign event in nearby Swanton. Then the buses headed down I-75 for campaign stops in Findlay, Lima and a large rally at Delco Park in Kettering to end the day.

Dole was visibly tired, and the news kept getting worse. Clinton's lead in Ohio polls was growing, not shrinking.

At the end of the day, as the buses headed for the Dayton airport, the candidate was in a foul mood.

So too were many of the campaign staff members, who were watching their dreams of jobs in the West Wing slipping away as they bounced around small-town Ohio.

So too were many of the Washington-based reporters who had spent months on the campaign trail with Dole, with very few breaks. For many of them, they had jobs as their news organizations' White House correspondents – prestigious jobs - on the line. Dole wins; they go to the White House. Dole loses; they go back to their old jobs covering cabinet departments or federal regulatory agencies.

Everybody was in a stinking bad mood – except me, who had a ride home to Cincinnati from an Enquirer photographer who shot the Kettering rally.

Little wonder that Bob Dole wanted to sleep in his own bed that night.

Ed. note: In next week's Tales from the Trail, a look at the Bob Dole campaign at its high point.

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.