And so, just as the men who have recently announced their presidential ambitions did so as quietly as possible--on the Internet (Bill Bradley) or late on New Year's Eve (Al Gore)--the official story of Elizabeth Dole's decision to join the fray is one of immaculate conception. One morning before Christmas, the tale goes, she woke up and began thinking seriously about running for President. After eight years as president of the American Red Cross, she had tied the place up into a neat little bundle, securing the blood supply and the fund-raising stream, coping with one disaster after another. She began to wonder, What's next? And so she called aides and said, "Let's prepare, in case."
It's a good story, but Elizabeth Hanford Dole, 62, has never done business that way. She and her advisers have been thinking about her running for President since her husband was trounced by Bill Clinton two years ago. By Christmas 1996, Bob Dole was joking about the idea publicly, but a year ago, he says, she told him, "You have to stop kidding about this." She discussed the matter with him seriously, anxious to be sure he had put the defeat behind him emotionally. By last January aides were clucking over polls showing that she might pull independent women voters back to the G.O.P. fold for the first time in 20 years. They spent last summer puzzling through how she would cope with all the personal scrutiny politics brings--not because she has something to hide but because she hasn't. An adviser quipped that to make Liddy Dole seem more credible in this political climate, they would have to invent a sex scandal for her.
She's credible now. The latest TIME/CNN poll shows Dole running a strong second behind Texas Governor George W. Bush in the race for the G.O.P. primary. A general-election matchup between Dole and Gore, the poll suggests, would be a dead heat. Dole told TIME she wants to "talk with people, listen, do some traveling and a lot of praying" in the next few weeks. But those around her believe all systems are go. "Once she gets into it," says Bob Dole, "she's into it."
His wife is lucky to be stouthearted because she is jumping into a race dominated by the suicide faction of the G.O.P.--the one that has driven the House to impeachment, hurt its fund raising, weakened its hold on Congress and scared others out of the race. This ugly environment may help explain why front runner Bush has for weeks been so strangely coy about his plans, in hopes of lowering the near impossible expectations piling up around him. Millionaire publishing tycoon Steve Forbes, in his fourth year of nonstop campaigning, has replaced his passion for the flat tax with sermons on abortion, winning few converts. John McCain, the maverick Arizona Senator, announced his semi-candidacy last week by talking about campaign-finance reform, and former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander jumped in (again). The party's absolutist wing looks like a scrapyard. Last week it saw its darling, Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri, announce that he would not seek the nomination at all.
Dole brings something to the party's civil war that her rivals do not. A generation of Republican candidates have courted religious activists with position papers; Liddy courts them with piety. She tries to devote 30 minutes to Bible study every day and can move the faithful with her Scripture-packed story of rediscovering God at midlife. She has opposed abortion except in the case of rape, incest or endangering the life of the mother, but she makes the activists nervous. Antiabortion language had a way of disappearing from drafts of her speeches in 1996. Dole is betting that her faith will overcome any shortcomings on policy.
What makes Dole a contender with the broader public is her experience using government to make small but highly popular changes in the quality of people's lives--the platform Bill Clinton ran on in 1996. After a stint at the Federal Trade Commission, Dole served as Secretary of Transportation under Reagan and Secretary of Labor under Bush. She can take some credit for air bags, airline safety measures and the brake light on the rear windshield of cars. She helped push for the first minimum-wage increase in eight years. These are badges that could help her bring independent voters, particularly women, into primaries--and make her a target of conservatives like Forbes.
And then there's her husband, who was his own worst enemy in three presidential campaigns but has since become a kind of grouchy national mascot. Bob Dole has been gung ho for a race for months, dropping hints, banging the drum and warning his wife that it is physically punishing. After the announcement, he pasted himself to the TV and gamed out how different media outlets would play the story, thrilled to be back. That's a worry too. He's never met a campaign he didn't try to run. He vows to stay in the background but told TIME, "I don't think I have to crawl in a hole."