Editorial: Dole’s futile ‘Hail Mary’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Elizabeth Dole was already losing her bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate when her now-infamous “Godless Americans” commercial aired. That’s the way it looked in Dole’s hometown at the time, and that’s the conclusion of Dole’s campaign manager, Marty Ryall, publicly commenting on the subject for the first time.
In case you’ve forgotten, Dole’s 11th-hour ad tried to tie Democratic opponent Kay Hagan to the “Godless Americans” group that hosted a Boston fundraiser for her. The fundraiser was fair game, but the ad stepped over the line of political decorum ó if there is such a thing ó when it closed with a female voice saying, “There is no God.” The ad seemed to be putting words into the mouth of Dole’s opponent, who is a church elder and Sunday school teacher.
If that was the nail in the coffin of Dole’s Senate tenure, the coffin was already well-nailed shut.
Writing in Politics magazine, Ryall chooses a football metaphor to explain the situation ó the Hail Mary pass. Ryall says Dole was on a “losing trajectory” in the campaign, and he disputes the idea that the ad cost her the election.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he writes. “When a football team is trailing by 7 points and throws a ‘Hail Mary’ on the last play of the game, they don’t lose because they failed to complete the play, they lose because they were down 7 points and time was running out.”
Thus Ryall puts the only possible face-saving spin on the “Godless Americans” ad. Such desperation did not become Dole ó nor did it occur in a vacuum. The ad said a lot about the mindset of the Dole campaign, its ethical standards and its respect for the intelligence of North Carolina voters.
The loss was a disappointing end to a political career that had been on an upward trajectory for many years ó from working in the Reagan White House to serving on the Cabinet and wowing a GOP convention when she spoke about husband Bob Dole.
Elizabeth Dole’s successful bid to take Jesse Helms’ seat in the Senate after his retirement seemed to be one more step on that upward climb. But it was not to be repeated.
Dole’s defeat disappointed Salisburians who liked having their own U.S. senator, but it didn’t surprise them. As much as Dole was from Salisbury, she was not of Salisbury; she has spent most of her life in Washington. After using her hometown connection to win a seat in the Senate, she returned to her Washington roots, leaving Salisburians in an uncomfortable position when outsiders asked about their senator. Dole made herself scarce.
Ryall’s article reopens this wound for Dole and her party, but such a controversial campaign ploy is bound to be debated and dissected for years to come. Dole will always have staunch supporters here who are loyal friends and diehard conservatives. They and the rest of Salisbury eagerly await her next move and hope she can eventually erase or offset memories of the 2008 campaign.