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Mr. Dole, a former Kansas Senator defeated by Bill Clinton 16 years ago, said the party should follow his example of “mainstream” Republicanism and become more appealing to ethnic minorities and young people to secure its future.”We have got to be open,” he said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph. “We cannot be a single-issue party or single-philosophy party”. He added: “There’s a big split in our party. There’s this undercurrent of rigid conservatism where you don’t dare not toe the line”.
The intervention from the Republican elder statesman comes after Todd Akin, an ultraconservative Missouri congressman, hijacked Mr Romney’s preparations for the party’s convention in Florida next week with his controversial remarks on abortion and “legitimate rape”.
Mr Dole, now 89, disclosed that he had advised Mr Romney on running for president during a meeting at his Washington office in November. He said the former Massachusetts governor showed “flexibility” and a willingness to forge the type of bipartisan deals rejected by current Republican leaders in Congress.
He conceded that the presidential hopeful, who has an estimated $250 million (£160 million) fortune, had struggled to charm American voters still suffering from economic woe. “They may not be enamoured with some wealthy candidate,” he said. “But I think Romney will be a great president with his business background and wonderful family.”
He described Mr Romney and Paul Ryan, his running mate, as a “great team”, noting a similarity between Mr Romney and himself. “When he said he could work across the aisle, it caught my attention, because that’s what I tried to do,” he said. Mr Dole said Mr Romney’s recruitment of Mr Ryan, a fiscal hawk and disciple of Mr Kemp who worked as a speech writer on the 1996 campaign, was an “extension of Jack’s legacy”.
His comparison of the party’s candidates for 2012 to those beaten handily by Mr Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in 1996 may raise concerns among Republicans already nervous at Mr Romney’s performance so far, which has seen him consistently trail Mr Obama in polls.
Mr Dole said he picked Mr Kemp, a former New York congressman who died in 2009, out of a recognition that while his Right-wing credentials were “always a little suspect”, Mr Kemp “was perceived as a strong conservative”. Mr Romney, who took relatively moderate positions while in liberal-leaning Massachusetts, is accused of making his selection out of a similar fear.
None the less, Mr Dole – who told doubters in his 1996 convention speech that “in politics, honourable compromise is no sin” – suggested Mr Romney should not bow to pressure from the Tea Party and others pressing for evermore hardline stances that could alienate swing voters.
“Not all the wisdom is in one party,” Mr Dole said. He added: “If you’re a leader you pay a penalty. You can’t be a leader and be everything to everybody. You gotta keep your word, you have to have trust, both from the Democrats and the Republicans”.
He said: “We need young people, we need Latinos, [among] certain groups we should be doing better”. He noted that if Mr Obama won 95 per cent of African-Americans and 70 per cent of young and Hispanic voters as some forecast, Republicans must ask themselves: “Who’s left?”
Mr Dole also lamented what he viewed as a misreading of Ronald Reagan’s presidential record by those who now hail him as the sainted father of the party’s uncompromising Right wing. “He was a pragmatic president – he knew the limits,” said Mr Dole. He pointed out that Mr Reagan had once been pro-choice and raised taxes.
He appeared to liken today’s uncompromising Republicans to Newt Gingrich, the former presidential candidate who was the combative House Speaker while Mr Dole was Senate majority leader. Mr Gingrich, he said, was “not one of my favourites”.
Mr Dole also criticised the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision to allow unlimited spending in elections by corporations, saying that increasingly, “it’s going to be hard for someone like me to run for president”. Mr Romney has enjoyed unprecedented fund-raising figures thanks to his collection of wealthy backers.
“I didn’t have any personal wealth, I didn’t have any friends or family who have personal wealth,” said Mr Dole. After years of speaking engagements, books and private sector work he is now estimated to be worth more than $16 million (£10 million) with his wife, the former North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole. Referring to the secretive industrialists who fund several conservative groups, he joked: “The Koch brothers live in Wichita – maybe I could call on them.”
Having released almost 30 years’ worth of tax returns when he ran for president, Mr Dole defended Mr Romney from Democratic demands to release more than two years’ of his own. However, he added: “It wasn’t any sweat for me – I don’t have these complicated things where you need 19 accountants to figure out what your taxes are. I imagine Romney must have an army”.
He expressed disappointment at the results of Mr Romney’s foreign tour last month, when he prompted a rebuke from David Cameron by suggesting that London may be ill-prepared for the Olympics. “He should have said something else like it’s going to be great,” said Mr Dole. “And it was, it was flawless”.
Mr Dole, who was also the Republican vice-presidential nominee in Gerald Ford’s unsuccessful campaign against Jimmy Carter in 1976, cautioned his colleagues against becoming excited if Mr Romney receives a polling boost after next week’s gathering in Tampa. “We came out of ours about eight or nine points ahead of Clinton,” he said. Mr Dole eventually lost the popular vote by more than eight points, winning 19 states to Mr Clinton’s 31.
He also warned that Mr Romney’s prospects could suffer from any economic upturn between now and November. While presidential challengers in downtimes always wish for improvement, said Mr Dole, “silently they hope it doesn’t start until December”.
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