While Liddy Dole Moves Up to the Cabinet, Senator Bob Is Casting Eyes at the White House

updated 01/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Kansas Republican Bob Dole lunched privately with Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker this month, it took but a moment to arrive at a subject of mutual interest. "It was the first thing we asked each other," Dole admits. " 'Do you think the President is going to run again?' "

The question is crucial to the future of both men. Baker, 57, has hinted he will run if Reagan steps down in 1984. Dole, 59, could well be Baker's strongest rival. "Neither of us had an answer," says Dole, "but we agreed that if he doesn't run, there is sure going to be a scramble."

The future of the Reagan Presidency is also important to the other half of the Dole household. Elizabeth "Liddy" Hanford Dole, 46, was nominated to the Cabinet Jan. 5 as Secretary of Transportation. Her promotion from White House special assistant to top-level Reaganaut would be a decided complication if Bob Dole ever considered challenging Reagan for the Republican nomination in '84. "If Bob did run," calculates Lyn Nofziger, a Reagan political adviser, "Elizabeth would have no alternative except to resign or divorce."

After the Reagans themselves, the Doles are considered the most powerful couple in national politics, and the Washington cocktail circuit is a crackle with gossip and speculation about their future. She is a Harvard-trained lawyer who retains the Southern cadences of her Salisbury, N.C. birthplace and has evolved her own brand of reserved charm. She served in the Johnson, Nixon and Ford Administrations before joining the Reagan White House two years ago. Her husband is a handsome, grown-up-poor Midwesterner, a bona fide hero whose withered right arm is a World War II badge of honor, and a forceful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "He's well respected, very bright, knows the issues," says fellow Senate Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah. "His only equal around this town is Elizabeth."

While other marriages might swiftly fold under the staggering 14-hour workdays and stresses of a two-politician family, the Doles claim their seven-year union is flourishing. "I think we both thrive on the hectic life-style," Elizabeth explains. "There are certain sacrifices, and it's good that these pressures have happened to both of us simultaneously." Though Dole has a daughter, Robin, 28, by his first marriage, he and Liddy have been frustrated in their desire to start a second family. Free of child-care responsibilities, Liddy and Bob have matched workaholic schedules. Their efforts are well rewarded. Bob's Senate salary is $60,000. Liddy will make $80,000 a year as a Cabinet officer.

Until Liddy took stock of her values a decade ago, her career was "totally consuming." To restore what she considered a proper balance in her life, she renewed the Methodist faith of her childhood. She and Bob worship at Washington's Foundry Methodist Church. Before accepting the Transportation post, she sought advice from her minister, Dr. Edward Bauman. He says, "She told me that until a few years ago she would have made the decision in a different way—by calling people in certain strategic positions."

Although her White House job as liaison for special interest groups gave her high visibility, detractors argue she was no Dole-model for American women. They accuse her of indecisiveness and doing too little too late in championing women's rights. Mrs. Dole bridles at her critics, claiming that her White House Council on Women's Issues generated new initiatives by the Administration. "Economic equity is where the action is," she insists, "not ERA and abortion. Women have entered the workplace in a tidal wave."

A skilled administrator who agonizes lengthily to reach what seems the right decision, Mrs. Dole is sensitive to the routine backbiting of Washington political life. She particularly resents the allegation that Reagan's senior male aides cut her out of the decision-making channels in the West Wing. "That's so negative, so mischaracterized," she argues. "There's access to the President any time I need it." Bob Dole is supportive but pragmatic. "I don't think any woman is going to break the Inner Circle," he says, "because that's the way it's organized."

For his part, Senator Dole has recovered from both his disastrous 1976 campaign as Gerald Ford's hatchet-man running mate and a dismally unsuccessful 1980 bid for the Presidency. The role of "the new Bob Dole" as a senior Senator with a special interest in tax and Social Security reforms has been crucial to passage of President Reagan's economic programs. While not hesitating to differ publicly with the White House—he resisted school lunch program cuts that he considered excessive—Dole has forsaken his old abrasive style to become a master of compromise. And while he retains his title as "the funniest man in the Senate," he has consciously dulled the once caustic edge.

Washington political pros believe Elizabeth's Cabinet status is a risk-free asset to Bob's presidential ambitions. They are also certain that since she has twice stepped out of government posts in the past to campaign for her husband, she is ready to do so again. "The political future is his, not hers," predicts a (male) Doleologist.

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