Donald Trump wasn’t Bob Dole’s first choice for president. Or even his second.
The former Kansas senator initially endorsed Jeb Bush, shifting to Marco Rubio when Bush dropped out. But next week, one of the Republican Party’s senior statesmen will vouch for Trump.
Indeed, Dole will be among the highest-ranking Republicans – and the only former Republican presidential nominee – to show up in Cleveland for the party’s convention.
“His Republican roots go deep into his soul, even though he’s got strong bipartisan instincts,” said Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman who served in the House of Representatives when Dole was in the Senate. “It’s part of Dole’s DNA to be a constructive force in American politics, and he sees a strong Republican Party as a necessary prerequisite to have a strong political system.”
Dole’s endorsement of Trump didn’t come as a surprise, Glickman said in an interview. At 92, Dole isn’t in it for a Cabinet post. He’s on good terms with Hillary and Bill Clinton. But Dole doesn’t want the party he loves to tear itself apart over internal divisions, Glickman said. And he doesn’t want its nominee to self-destruct.
“My guess is that he thinks if he disengages, this could be a negative force and that wouldn’t be helpful,” Glickman said.
It’s unclear whether Dole will play a formal role at the convention; he was not among the initial list of speakers released by the Republican National Convention.
His presence could garner considerable attention, since there will be few other high-profile establishment Republicans there, said Joseph Romance, associate professor of political science at Fort Hays State University in Kansas.
In his home state, though, Dole’s endorsement runs counter to the mood of the conservative electorate, Romance said. Kansas Republicans overwhelmingly voted for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the state’s caucuses, 48 percent to 23 percent.
“Kansas is a very partisan state, and I think that although Kansans on the Republican side are conservative, Trump is a very uncomfortable situation for them,” Romance said.
Still, Kansas is firmly red, and Trump is expected to win its six electoral votes, with or without Dole’s support.
For Dole, speaking up for Trump is in line with his identity as a party leader and a fierce partisan, said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.
Dole served as the chairman of the Republican National Committee, was an attack dog as a running mate for President Gerald Ford in 1976, served 28 years in the Senate and ran for president himself three times.
“What you’re seeing with Dole is eminently predictable,” Loomis said. “When you’re a party leader. I think. in his mind, your responsibility is to go with the person the party chooses, even if that person, Trump, is not your first choice.”
Many people tend, in Dole’s older years, to romanticize him as someone who walked across the aisle and made deals, Loomis said. “All of that is true,” Loomis said. “But at the same time, he was always an acid-tongued, rabid Republican. I’ve always said if he was in the Congress today he’d be (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell with a little more wit.”
And now Dole has little to lose.
“He’s got no skin in the game,” Loomis said. “He’s not Ted Cruz trying to figure out what his next step is. He’s not Marco Rubio trying to get back in the game. He’s more than twice their age. I think he can have some fun with it, and I fully anticipate he will.”
He said Dole wasn’t likely to be moved by warnings from some Republicans that Trump could hurt the GOP in the long run by alienating minorities and women.
“I think Dole would say, ‘Look, the Republican Party has survived since 1854. It will survive Donald Trump. We need to hold it together as best we can,’ ” Loomis said.
Dole chose Trump when Cruz was still in the running, his antipathy for the Texas senator long-standing. Dole repeatedly has complained that the tea party-backed Cruz and his ilk are more interested in shutting down government than making it work through compromise.
“I don’t think Ted is a Republican,” Dole said in an interview on the “Michael Smerconish Show” in January. “He’s a conservative extremist. I think he uses the title Republican because there’s no conservative extremist ballot. He doesn’t get along with anyone in the Senate.”
He viewed Trump as more of a pragmatic deal-maker who would surround himself with good, smart people.
“He has the right personality to work with members and say, ‘Let’s make a deal,’ ” Dole said of Trump. “I don’t mean give away the store, but sometimes you have to compromise. I don’t care how far right you are.”
Dole declined an interview request with McClatchy in the run-up to the convention. But he told National Public Radio last month that he knew Trump was a flawed candidate who has said “some things that would curl your hair, things that he shouldn’t have said.”
Dole said he’d made up his mind to endorse Trump anyway.
“Some Republicans say, ‘Well, I can’t vote for Trump,’ ” Dole said. “I have an obligation to the party. I mean, what am I going to do? I can’t vote for George Washington. So I’m supporting Donald Trump.”
Dole even floated the idea that he could help rein in Trump by serving as his senior adviser.
I mean, I’ve learned a little over the years that might be helpful.
Bob Dole on advice to Donald Trump
Dole told NPR that he’d spoken twice with Trump already and had imparted two pieces of advice: First, that Newt Gingrich would be an excellent choice for vice president because he’s well-versed in policy and understands how Congress works. (On Friday, Trump selected Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate.) And. second, that Trump should stop his “derisive” attacks on people and focus on the issues.
“I hope to speak to him again,” Dole said.
Dole might have an inside track to Trump, given that several former Dole staffers have taken on prominent roles in the billionaire’s campaign.
Trump’s campaign chairman and chief strategist, Paul Manafort, worked for Dole when he was a presidential candidate at the 1996 convention, and Michael Glassner, a onetime senior adviser and “body man” for Dole, is Trump’s deputy campaign manager.
Tony Fabrizio, a former Dole pollster, does polling for Trump, and Alan Cobb, a former member of Dole’s Senate staff, works on ballot access and political outreach for Trump.
For now, at least, there are no plans for any meeting between Trump and Dole at the convention.
Dole will arrive Monday and depart Tuesday after attending a luncheon sponsored by his Washington law firm at a Cleveland restaurant. He is expected to speak briefly at the luncheon on veterans issues.
Dole’s appearance in the convention city will set him apart from some of his closest friends and allies in the Republican Party. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, for example, has revoked his own endorsement of Trump, and Arizona Sen. John McCain’s support for the billionaire is tepid at best.
McCain, mired in his own tough re-election campaign, is not going to Cleveland. Neither will the most recent former Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, or former Presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush.
But Dole could play a constructive role: “All of us love and revere Sen. Dole, so I’m sure his presence is very helpful because he is, to me, the last of the Mohicans,” McCain said in an interview, his voice brimming with affection.
He said Trump would be wise to listen to any advice Dole might offer.
Anyone who seeks public office should listen to Bob Dole. He’s my hero.
Sen. John McCain on Bob Dole
Dole has the potential to be “a unifying force” in Cleveland, “not just for Republicans but for Americans,” Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran said in an interview.
Moran will skip the convention. He is up for re-election, and his office said he would be busy wrapping up a round of town hall meetings in each of Kansas’ 105 counties. Despite expressing some concerns about Trump’s conservative credentials in the past, Moran has said he will vote for Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton.
Kansas’ other senator, Pat Roberts, a longtime friend of Dole’s, is not up for re-election and will be at the convention. He said in a statement that Dole had been a leading voice in the Republican Party throughout his career and beyond, and any insight he offered would benefit Trump.
“Very few people have been in the shoes of the Republican presidential nominee, and I believe Mr. Trump would appreciate the experience and valuable knowledge that Sen. Dole could share,” Roberts said.