WASHINGTON – They are war heroes with the injuries to show for it. They are known for hurricane tempers and caustic wit. They are among the oldest men to seek the presidency.
And Democrats are hoping that the 1996 candidacy of Bob Dole will be a template for what will happen to Sen. John McCain in his run for the White House this year.
But for all the obvious similarities, there are also sufficient differences between the two Republicans to make surface comparisons somewhat misleading.
Dole was not just a creature of the Senate but the very face of the Washington legislative establishment. McCain has promoted an image as a renegade within the body, scolding it, for example, for its pork-barrel spending.
McCain is, to a considerable degree, sprinting away from his own party and looking to distance himself from an unpopular incumbent president. Dole resisted running against an institution that he cherished, and that made it easier for Democrats to tie him to what they portrayed as the Republican party’s excesses during the period when the House speaker, Newt Gingrich, and the ascendant conservative wing of the party were seeking to reshape domestic policy.
Dole, as a candidate, reined in his humor and kept a protective wall around him, avoiding freewheeling sessions with voters or reporters, in deference to the urging of his campaign advisers. McCain’s campaign is a rolling caravan of town hall meetings, news conferences, wisecracks and the very kinds of unscripted events that made Dole’s advisers sweat.
Not incidentally, McCain campaigned frequently at Dole’s side during the summer of 1996, and took note of Dole’s missteps – from his failure to raise money as soon as he won the nomination to fight off a Democratic onslaught, and particularly the way he dealt stylistically with voters and reporters. McCain’s considerable array of advisers this year does not include any of the top names from the Dole campaign of 1996.
"He watched that and realized it was a mistake," said Mark Salter, a senior adviser to and longtime friend of McCain. "You have got to get out there and be accessible to the voters and the press."
Dole, wounded in World War II, wore a bracelet with McCain’s name on it when McCain was in a prisoner-of-war camp in Hanoi. And he recently wrote a letter defending McCain’s conservative credentials (although Dole, like McCain, always had trouble persuading conservatives that he really was one of them).
Yet the two are not particularly close, and McCain does not turn to Dole for advice about how to run his campaign, aides said. Dole is not exactly a regular on McCain’s bus.
Democrats look to the Dole campaign – and the echoes in style and personality between the senator from Kansas and the senator from Arizona – in speaking optimistically about the campaign ahead. "The parallels are striking," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who has served with both men. "And the results will be the same."
The comparisons are not without merit. Dole and McCain have both been associated with presidential campaigns that grappled with spasms of infighting and management problems. Both have been familiar fixtures on that symbol of the Washington Beltway, the Sunday morning talk shows. Although separated in age by 13 years – Dole is 84 and McCain is 71 – both were born well before the coming of the baby boomers, making them members of "a much different generation than Barack Obama," said Tony Fabrizio, who was Dole’s pollster. "Their values, their principles, how they comport themselves is totally different than Barack Obama."
Each has displayed impatience with the demands of the modern campaign – whether sticking to a steady message, resisting the temptation for the impulsive attack or joke, or reading a speech off a teleprompter. "They are almost workmanlike in delivering their message," Fabrizio said. "You wouldn’t describe them as colorful campaigners. And you wouldn’t describe them as having the capacity to make people swoon."
Dole could be funny, although his jokes had a bit of stiletto in them; indeed, friends of both suggested that their humor was as much an asset as a potential liability. "Dole was a master of political humor," said former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo. "McCain has a very wry sense of humor. Sometimes it’s the kind of humor that drifts over the heads of people who have no sense of humor."
The fact that both men suffered injuries in war that have shadowed them for life has created similar sensibilities for them. "They both had go through extensive rehabilitation," said Bob Kerrey, the former senator from Nebraska, who lost part of a leg in Vietnam. "Having gone through something like that myself, I know that gives you a different perspective. I think it gives you sympathy with other people who are suffering," said Kerrey, a Democrat. "Particularly with Dole."
"He was a bona fide liberal when it came to" the Americans with Disability Act, he added.
But will Obama be able to campaign against McCain as a static symbol of Washington, the way President Bill Clinton did easily with Dole?
"You cannot nail McCain as a creature of Washington, because he has been such a maverick on campaign finance and other issues," said Scott Reed, who was Dole’s campaign manager. "He’ll be able to slip that."
Dole was the ultimate party man in the Senate: He behaved and talked like a senator even after he left, and many times, having been the majority leader, he was identified with the entire Republican agenda that he helped push through, in contrast with McCain. McCain not only does not sound like a senator, at least when he does not want to, but he also does not have to account for everything the Senate does.
For all that, the most significant difference between Dole and McCain may be less the candidates themselves than the environments they confront in seeking the White House. "Dole was running against an incumbent during a time of peace and a growing economy," Reed said. "McCain is running against a popular new phenomenon with the Republican Party brand hung around his neck."© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.