Dole works hard, but spotlight eludes her

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole has been telling economic advisers, media, constituents and anyone else who will listen that she knew years ago this financial crisis was coming. She was on the phone last week with a Wilmington banker.

"You know, all this could have been avoided," she told him. "Back in 2003, I had legislation with ..."

She named the senators she had joined, described how, year after year, their bill to rein in two giant mortgage companies couldn't gain support to pass.

"It was like David and Goliath," she continued.

Dole was supposed to be North Carolina's Goliath.

She joined the U.S. Senate in 2003 with a hefty resume as a two-time Cabinet member, one-time presidential candidate and former head of one of the nation's largest charities. She was one of politics' true rock stars.

Instead, Dole has spent her first term largely as a back-bencher who is more likely to co-sponsor major legislation than author it, more likely to join a group of negotiators than lead it.

Now, as Dole seeks re-election for a second term, she faces questions about how much she has accomplished for North Carolina. A high-profile ad in the campaign criticizes her effectiveness.

"If you look for things she's done, you have to look hard and long to find those things," said Kerry Haynie, a political scientist at Duke University. "She's more of a silent senator in many respects."

Dole says she has a long list of achievements in the Senate.

Indeed, she blocked some international trade deals until they included provisions to shield local textile companies from overseas competition. She led an effort to protect military families from predatory lending, and she forced the Navy to provide information to Marines who might have ingested toxic water at Camp Lejeune.

Dole also claims credit for protecting military bases in North Carolina from closure or reductions, though she held supporting roles. In other situations, as in her work to oppose the Navy's outlying landing field in Eastern North Carolina, she came late to the game.

Her star turn at the helm of the National Republican Senatorial Committee ended miserably when Republicans lost control of the Senate, and she's been frustrated in efforts to earn federal recognition for the Lumbee tribe.

Dole says she's not out to grab the limelight.

"We have led the way on so many different issues," she said. "It's not about aggrandizement for me. It's what matters for North Carolina."

Her friends in the Senate say she's among its hardest workers.

"Truthfully, a lot of senators just sort of do their bit, but she really works a lot of these issues," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who works with her on the Armed Services Committee.

Dole was an executive before she came to Capitol Hill, serving as secretary of labor and of transportation. She also was chief of the American Red Cross.

But getting things done in the Senate isn't so much about calling the shots as working the room. Some observers say she faltered.

"She didn't come in with a clear set of priorities and so has meandered a little bit," said Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races for the Cook Political Report.

Collegial style

In two of Dole's highest-profile achievements -- the tobacco buyout and the military base realignment -- the freshman senator was a significant player. But these were effectively team efforts.

At the Senate Banking Committee hearing last week, senators quick-fired questions at Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke about the $700 billion Wall Street bailout proposal.

When her turn came, Dole read a single question off a prepared script. Her query, and the economic advisers' answers, took up her allotted time of five minutes.

"She is not perceived as terribly aggressive," Duffy said.

Some colleagues say her lack of aggression reflects a collegial style that earns across-the-aisle support.

She was one of the Republican leaders on a bipartisan effort to extend the Family and Medical Leave Act to military families caring for wounded soldiers, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. The bill was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.

It was one of several situations when Dole has, as the election neared, shifted into a bipartisan gear and drifted away from an increasingly unpopular President Bush. For example:

* Dole surprised listeners at an Armed Services hearing in fall 2007 when she criticized Bush's handling of the Iraq war.

* In October, Dole was one of three Republican senators up for re-election who joined a bipartisan climate change bill. She wrote an opinion piece in The Charlotte Observer saying carbon emissions generated by humans are largely to blame for global warming.

* And this year, Dole bucked Bush on his efforts to squeeze some hospitals out of Medicaid dollars, a cut that would have taken $300 million from North Carolina. She helped impose a one-year moratorium on his plans.

Still, Dole is one of the more conservative voices in the Senate. She voted with her party more than 95 percent of the time in her first two years in Congress, according to a Washington Post database, but only 88 percent of the time since Republicans lost control.

More than a year ago, Dole jumped on the high-profile issue of immigration.

On Capitol Hill, she joined a group of senators to block comprehensive immigration reform. In North Carolina, Dole helped the state sheriffs association develop its own federal partnership to arrest and deport suspected illegal immigrants.

Financial logjam

But perhaps her greatest frustration has been the recent financial crisis.

Dole was an original co-sponsor of legislation as early as 2003 that would have regulated Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two companies, which help prop up the nation's affordable housing market, were among the first financial institutions to falter this summer.

The oversight bill Dole pushed would have created a new federal regulator for the agencies. It met resistance from Democrats and couldn't get passed in the Republican-controlled Senate in 2005. But elements of the legislation became law in July when Congress passed its rescue bill for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Dole says she was trying to do the right thing but was stymied in the process. She was reminding folks again Thursday, from her office phone.

"It could've been prevented, if people had taken this legislation seriously. It's just so frustrating."

This is the second of two stories looking at U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and her work in the Senate. Read the first story at www. The News & Observer will look at her Democratic challenger, state Sen. Kay Hagan, next Sunday and Monday.