Exile on ’08: Liddy Dole’s chances

by Kirk Ross

Race: US Senate

Incumbent: Elizabeth Dole (one term)

Possible Challengers: NC Rep. Grier Martin (Wake), NC Sen. Kay Hagan (Guilford), State School Board Chair Howard Lee. At least one other major name is considering the race.

Conventional Wisdom: National handicappers Cook, Rothenberg and Congressional Quarterly all report the seat as either leaning Republican or advantage-incumbent.

Unconventional Wisdom: A diverse group of observers ranging from Dem-cheering blogger SenateGuru2008 to GOP uber-fundraiser Paul M. Weyrich say a strong Dem challenge could unseat her.

Dominant paradigms:

Inside NC

Up: Liddy Dole is a steel magnolia with a ton of money and national name recognition.

Down: Liddy Dole is a has-been and vulnerable.

Up: Her top assets are the sheer awesomeness of incumbency and that George W. Bush is not on the ballot.

Down: GWB isn’t on the ballot, but his war is.

Up: She’s still a good fit for Tar Heel politics.

Down: She’s out of touch with a restless electorate.

Up: Hillary Clinton

Down: Hillary Clinton and Bev Perdue.

Outside NC

Up: The Democratic presidential field won’t pull in NC moderates.

Down: The Republican presidential field won’t ignite the base.

Up: The GOP won’t let her lose.

Down: The GOP is scrambling to defend 22 seats to the Dems’ 12, plus she burned a lot of capital in ’06.

By the Numbers:

In the bank: Plenty and it hardly matters. Dole is a proven fundraiser. Effectively, she’ll have all the dough she needs.

Polling: The News & Observer’s Rob Christensen wrote last Sunday that an internal poll by Dole’s campaign has her at a job approval rating of 64 percent – a number that several folks were quick to point out varies widely with previous polls that put her favorables at around 50 percent. She has strong name recognition and in ongoing hypothetical races she bests lesser-known opponents. A recent survey by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showed a much tighter race when a brief bio about possible opponent Grier Martin was read before voters were asked about their preferences.

The Watergate Factor (Referencing the building where she and her husband reside rather than the political scandal): Democrats have made an issue of Dole’s living situation before, but the issue hasn’t gotten much traction. This time around it may, though, add some fuel to the idea that she’s out of touch. Expect a few “Where’s Liddy?” ads.

Narrative: Once a fearsome campaigner – who can forget her Oprah moment wading into the audience mic in hand at the 1996 Republican convention – she was not dazzling as the head of the GOP senatorial committee, a job that put her in the spotlight defending things like former Montana Sen. Conrad Burns’ affiliation with a fellow named Abramoff and, later, explaining why under her leadership the effort to hold the Senate went down in flames.

And though it seems every article about Mrs. Dole has to mention Bob Dole and include some kind of term like “star power” or “GOP superstar” there were murmurs that she may not even run at all. While the murmurs have died down, the stump in 2008 promises to be carefully scripted.

This is her race to lose so don’t expect anything but a conservative run with very few, if any, one-on-one debates. With it being highly unlikely that anyone near her wattage is going to be running against her, she’ll try to avoid as many same-stage moments as possible.

Unlike some of the congressional races, this race is nationalized from the outset. While the senator has all the advantages of incumbency, she is joined at the hip with the consequences in eastern North Carolina of the Bush administration’s war and veterans policies.

She may be the darling of the pundit class right now, but if Dole falters even a bit the storyline will shift dramatically. The media loves a star, but not nearly as much as spotlighting one on the way down.