Stealth Warriors From Washington

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Elizabeth Dole gets ready for every event as if she's having tea with the Queen. At a rally in a tobacco warehouse so humid we all feel like chain smokers, Dole appears in a bubble-gum pink suit with beige pumps and stockings. If someone were to, say, spill barbecue on her, a mint green spare is hanging in her Buick sedan.

This is the Liddy we came to know during her brief presidential race in 2000, when not a hair or verb was out ofplace. She's trying to be looser now as she runs to replace retiring North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms against former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles. After her stump speech about religion, the troops, jobs and schools, and an hour of meet-and-greet, I ask Dole, 66, why she isn't sweating. She hunches up her shoulders and motions for me to reachinside her jacket. "Feel the back of my neck," she offers. "I'm drenched." I take her word for it.


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The script this time is that Dole is unscripted. I catch on after three people, including Dole herself, tell me how she jumped on aHarley to roar into an auditorium at Duke University, which, of course, was entirely scripted. The crowd is not terribly specific about why they like her, but they do love her. One says Dole is "so much like Jesse," another marvels at how Dole's "mother over there in Salisbury is 101 years old," while a white-haired gentleman gushes over "what a pretty lady she is." He puts a yellow pride in tobacco hat on her head. She takes it off.

No one talks about her remarkable career in Washington, perhaps because she rarely does. Any mention of three decades serving three Presidents and thawing Lean Cuisine for husband Senator Bob Dole at their Watergate apartment is drowned out by her frequent recital of local credentials in aresurgent drawl: her 1994 North Carolinian of the Year award, her degree from Duke and, of course, her mother, whose house she recently bought, making Dole the best kind of North Carolinian, a landowner. "My roots are deep. I've been here constantly," she says constantly, as if being graded on attendance.

Politicians are the only folks who practice resume deflation — the price of regaining political virginity. Bowles doesn't trumpet his presidential service, even though he won bipartisan praise for getting a balanced budget and steadying the ship of state during Monicagate. The closest he has come to playing the inside game was to import former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, purified as she once toured North Carolina with Helms. While it might help with African-American voters, Bowles says he won't be hosting his ex-boss.

At a breakfast with Bowles in Raleigh, I wonder if the race is between Stiff and Stiffer. Bowles, 57, who dresses and speaks like the banker he was, stresses Dole's opposition in 1989 to an increase in the minimum wage. In a state chock-full of seniors who didn't make it to Florida, he is scoring points with Social Security, which Dole, like Bush, would privatize, after a fashion. She now proposes that a modest 2% gointo private investments, but some worry even that amount could cripple the system.

Bowles, who trails Dole by just 4 points, wants to hash out their differences inas many as eight debates. She wants fewer. So far, they have agreed on one, on the night the World Series opens.

On the issues, the battle lines are clearly drawn. Bowles supported the Family and Medical Leave Act (Dole opposed it, though she now says it has value); he's pro-choice (she's pro-life); he's for coverage of prescription drugs (she's for some coverage); he supports the Brady Bill and closing gun-show loopholes (Dole, on Oprah two years ago, was against assault weapons; in gun-happy North Carolina, she is not).

Of course, Bowles could wear the pink suit and still not flank her on gender. Women greet the Harvard Law grad and former Secretary of both Labor and Transportation like a rock star. By hiding a steel magnolia under a sweet one, she puts powerful men at ease while racing past them, a trait many women could use.

Dole got flustered when I asked, "Where's Bob?" (Maine, maybe.) She couldn't remember if she'd seen a fax of his schedule that day. He is a far more enthusiastic supporter this time around than during her presidential run, when he contributed to her primary opponent, Senator John McCain. She notes that at least she knows where the family dog is. "Bob left Leader with me," she says. "So I don't have to sleep alone." I take her word for it.