Tough, determined Elizabeth Dole in unexpected battle

HIGH POINT, N.C. — Despite a style that seems lifted from the genteel pages of Southern Living magazine, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole has always displayed an intense drive to succeed in public life.

That drive separated her from many women of her pre-feminist generation. It led her to build a deep and impressive Washington resume. Now, locked in a tough re-election campaign, Dole is reminding voters that she is more than "Little Miss Perfect," which New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once called her.

"I've had to break a few [glass ceilings] as I came along," Dole said at a GOP rally in High Point last week.

These are trying times for Dole, who is facing an unexpectedly stiff challenge from Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro.

With change, rather than Washington experience, the mantra of this election, Dole is increasingly reminding voters that she once personified change.

Dole, 72, grew up in an era with different expectations for women.

The daughter of a prosperous Salisbury wholesale florist, Elizabeth Hanford Dole was May Queen (and student government president) at Duke University and made her debut at the Raleigh debutante ball. Though her only North Carolina residence is her late parents' handsome Tudor-style house, her North Carolina accent remains undiluted by her Potomac years.

Her style is still very much 1950s North Carolina. She's always smartly dressed and displays a get-more-bees-with-honey style of graciousness. Dole's manner belies an ambition that prompted her a decade ago to try to become the first female president of the United States.

If her upbringing was small-town Southern traditional, Dole's drive set her apart from many of her contemporaries. When she told her mother that she would attend Harvard Law School instead of settling down to raise a family, her mother could be heard retching that night in her hotel room. Dole would not marry until she was 39, and she would never have children.

In a joint memoir written with her husband, "The Doles: Unlimited Partners," she put it this way: "In my imagination I caught the rhythm of a different drummer. It beat a cadence familiar since childhood. Life was more than a spectator sport, and I couldn't settle for observer status."

Friends say Dole is driven to succeed and to repeatedly prove herself -- perhaps a holdover from an era when it was far more difficult for women to rise to positions of leadership.

"She is somebody who in early life decided that she wanted to be in public service and to succeed in everything she undertook," said Wyndham Robertson, a former University of North Carolina vice president who grew up with Dole.

Few people in American politics can match Dole's blue-chip resume: White House aide, transportation secretary, labor secretary, American Red Cross president, U.S. Senator, presidential candidate and spouse of a presidential candidate.

She played important roles in requiring brake lights on cars, privatizing national freight railroad, and pressuring states to raise the drinking age. Even in the current anti-Washington climate, Dole thinks her experience in heading giant organizations should count for something with voters.

Democrats have sought to portray Dole as a carpetbagger who has not lived in the state since the 1950s. One of Hagan's favorite lines is that voters should give Dole a pair of ruby red slippers -- like Dorothy in the movie "The Wizard of Oz" -- so she can click her heels and return home to Kansas.

"I think people understand that you can't run the Red Cross from Salisbury," Dole said in an interview last week. "You can't run a Cabinet agency from Salisbury."

Life on the Potomac included one of Washington's most famous marriages, to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, a future Senate majority leader and the Republican nominee for president in 1996.

The couple live in Bob Dole's old bachelor pad, a modest-sized apartment at the Watergate -- later enlarged when they bought the apartment of next-door neighbor Monica Lewinsky. The home suits the low-maintenance lifestyle of two prominent politicians who spend a lot of time on the road. They enjoy Chinese takeout, classic movies, "Law and Order" TV programs and increasingly infrequent jaunts to their condo at Bal Harbour, Fla.

Washington has been good to the Doles, and Elizabeth Dole is among the richest members of Congress. As a couple, the Doles' assets in 2006 were estimated to be between $18.5 million and $69.2 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzed the financial disclosure statements senators must file. (Candidates are required only to report the value of assets in broad categories.)

Her strong religious beliefs provide balance to her life. Although she has always been a Christian, she has described a religious reawakening while working in the Reagan White House in the early 1980s. Last week, Dole said she was reading "The Power of a Praying Woman," a book that a waitress at Raleigh's Crabtree Marriott hotel gave her.

She mentions her religious views on the stump even more than her predecessor, Sen. Jesse Helms.

"It is very important to be undergirded by a network of prayer warriors," Dole told a rally in High Point. It is an important part of Dole's political appeal in a Bible-Belt state.

"She is a good Christian woman," said Linda McArthur, 62, a social services worker from Sanford, after having her photograph taken with the candidate.

Dole spent most of her life as a government official, rather than as an elected official, and her speeches can come across as wonky. Her talks offer few applause lines, but plenty of bureaucratic references as she talks about the "287-G" program, or ICE, or the ins and outs of the arcane congressional process.

"Public policy has been my whole life," Dole said. "My husband is the politician."

When it comes to political beliefs, Dole has been a pragmatist. As a young woman, she worked in the campaign of Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson and got a job in the Johnson White House as a consumer affairs aide. When Republican Richard Nixon took office, Dole switched to independent. When she married Dole, she became a Republican.

A two-part pitch

When running for president in 1999 against George Bush and John McCain, she campaigned as a moderate Republican who supported gun control. But when she ran for the Senate in gun-loving North Carolina, she switched sides.

Dole is now campaigning on two tracks. She is touting her insiders' clout in helping negotiate the federal tobacco buyout, protecting North Carolina's military bases from closure and saving money for hospitals.

But in a year when change has become the new political buzzword, Dole also reminds voters that she was breaking barriers for women while GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was a child.

Dole says the race is competitive because of the unsettled mood of the country, the millions being spent against her by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and North Carolina's long history of close Senate contests.

"Every [Senate] race is close because there are just so many huge issues facing people, and the feeling is that the country is on the wrong track," Dole said. "But I'm confident that we're going to win."

Confident or not, Dole has been crisscrossing North Carolina, warning of the risks of illegal immigration, invoking God and country and posing for photographs.

At an age when others might be easing back, Dole is unexpectedly fighting for her political life.