Looking For Elizabeth Dole

Elizabeth Dole GOP convention August 2000
Hotline Executive Editor and CBS Early Show contributor Craig Crawford is on the road in North Carolina, where he's searching for Elizabeth Dole.

The ducks have landed. Already?

In most campaigns the ducks – or people dressed as ducks – usually do not come out until after Labor Day, or perhaps August at the earliest.

But North Carolina Democrats know they must flock now to beat runaway front-runner Elizabeth Dole for Jesse Helms' Senate seat. So they dress as ducks to dramatize how she is "ducking" debates with her five rivals for the GOP nomination.

The tactic is silly but the charge is taking hold as the first serious challenge to Dole's status as presumed-senator.

The experts always said this seat is Dole's to lose. Spend a few days in North Carolina and you wonder if she just might find a way. The duck people are not alone. Dole's stiff arm to Republican opponents infuriated party loyalists, especially when President Bush swooped in to raise money for her, dissing her GOP foes.

North Carolina news media are in full snit. A columnist in the Charlotte Observer greeted Dole's arrival to the city this week by accusing her of "running a shell campaign – no debate, no issues, no substance."

Sound familiar? Dole's 2000 presidential campaign fell prey to similar complaints.

Local TV anchors advanced Dole's visit with talk of her "ducking" opponents. And hosts of a popular morning radio show ridiculed Dole's debate no-shows before their live coverage of her breakfast meet-and-greet at a Charlotte eatery (on "Elizabeth" street).

The debate-dodge story somehow morphed into a media consensus that she ducks reporters too, even though she usually pauses during campaign appearances for media questions. Dole spent four minutes answering three questions at the Charlotte breakfast, but the short time was the fault of local reporters. They quit asking. And what they did ask was hardly Pulitzer worthy.

"Do you prefer to be called Elizabeth or Liddy," a radio reporter asked. Dole said she would answer to either name.

"So, you've never been called Libby?"

"Absolutely not."

No ducking there.

Still, North Carolina media keep hammering at what one reporter described as Dole's "celebrity campaign," designed to avoid challenging questions.

Unfortunately for Dole, this story line could go on for months. The primary set for early May has been postponed to late summer, thanks to a successful Republican lawsuit to overturn the state's redistricting plan. That means those pesky GOP rivals will be around much longer than anticipated, calling her a carpetbagger and too liberal to succeed Helms.

In the end, look for Dole to stop the whining and join a debate, which she will probably win. In the meantime, she must endure coverage such as The Charlotte Observer tagging her for how she handled a recent charity donation.

The newspaper sternly noted that Dole donated an artistic mask she did not paint, despite auction organizers billing the artworks as "painted by local and national celebrities."

Dole aide Mary Brown Brewer, who has proved on occasion to be more quotable than her candidate, ably dismissed the Observer's report: "She can't take full credit for the artistic genius, though she did personally add the creative flair of her signature, which is a work of art in itself."