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Testing the Limits of Candidate Wife Role

September 12, 1996

ELDRIDGE, Iowa (AP) _ Elizabeth Dole smiled broadly as she displayed a tiny red rocking chair, carefully setting the stage for the zinger to come.

``It’s Clinton’s rocker _ it rocks left and right, left and right, left and right,″ she told an appreciative partisan audience, arguing the president shifts his views from time to time. ``He’s doing it again.″

Mrs. Dole, in fact, was at it again, this time using a hastily converted skating rink to test the limits of her role as candidate’s wife on the stump. It’s been clear for a while she intends to stretch those limits.

Audiences have come to expect her skillful talk show-like performances _ such as the one she delivered at the Republican National Convention. She prowls the crowd, occasionally rests her hand on an admirer’s shoulder.

``I don’t like a barrier between you and me,″ she told a crowd of about 200 Wednesday, before plunging into its midst.

To be sure, Mrs. Dole fills the traditional role of the candidate’s wife, loyally repeating stock campaign lines and filling in some personal details intended to soften Republican Bob Dole’s image.

``I’m going to tell you a little bit about his private life, and I’m probably the only one who can do that,″ is a favorite phrase, as is, ``He’s going to get this country back on track.″

Mrs. Dole also hits on themes like character, trust and values.

``It’s about the character of the person who is going to lead us,″ Mrs. Dole said. She said her husband is ``rich in values.″

While polls show Dole with a double-digit deficit against Clinton, the numbers are worse among women voters, and Mrs. Dole is a key weapon in the effort to close that gender gap.

``For women, wages have gone down″ during the Clinton presidency, she claims. ``People are being squeezed.″

But Mrs. Dole extends her message beyond a supportive role, lashing out at Clinton with barbs delivered, some argue, better than her husband.

``It’s perfectly clear where Bill Clinton stands on these issues, and it’s perfectly clear where Bob Dole stands on these issues,″ she said. ``With Bob Dole it’s a promise you can take to the bank.″

That’s one of the freedoms candidates’ wives _ largely spared intense scrutiny by reporters _ can enjoy.

Her rocking chair comparison drew the loudest cheer of the day from an audience clearly weary of bad polling numbers.

``I think he needs her out making more of these appearances,″ Russ Moorhead of Davenport said. ``She’s calling a spade a spade. People have started talking about how we can’t be negative, but I think it’s about time we better start being negative.″

While her words often echo the GOP nominee’s, Mrs. Dole delivers them in a way that leaves an impression.

``I think it’s time to stop being afraid to talk about what’s going on,″ Marilyn Hart of Bettendorf said. ``It’s time to bring it up.″

Still, while there’s a good deal of power politics, there’s also plenty of the dutiful wife, subtly assuring audiences she’s no Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The message gets through.

``There’s no comparison with what we’ve got there now,″ Otto Ewoldt of Le Claire said.

The pitch comes with a high-energy delivery and a telegenic shrewdness.

``Make it happen. Make it happen,′ she pleads at one point with fists clenched and sincerity on her face. ``We’ve got to pull out the stops, roll up the sleeves.″

A standard part of her appearance is to grab a child from the audience, driving home the point of how much each youngster must pay if the budget isn’t balanced. Using a cute little blonde girl Wednesday, Mrs. Dole almost imperceptibly moved the reluctant youngster to a section of the room where television lights were brightest and camera angles clearest.

When an admirer tentatively held out a book, Mrs. Dole offered her biggest smile. ``I will be glad to sign that book _ when I finish this speech,″ said Mrs. Dole, smoothly moving on with her performance.

Performance isn’t too strong a word.

``She’s incredible,″ said Ray Dearin, an Iowa State University speech professor who specializes in analyzing political rhetoric.

Her audiences put it differently.

``Her love for people comes across,″ Ewoldt said. ``I’ve been in politics for like 20 years and she’s just got charisma.″

Annette Maycock of Le Claire jokes that it can all be traced to Mrs. Dole’s North Carolina heritage.

``She’s a Tarheel baby,″ Mrs. Maycock said. ``She’s a southern girl.″

More than a few who watch Mrs. Dole say there’s talent for more than just a supporting role, suggesting she would be a formidable candidate.

``I’ll tell you what, she’s got what it takes to do it,″ Moorhead said.

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