WASHINGTON (AP) -- Bob Dole, his political hatchet buried, calls himself ''sort of a senior something'' now. For the man who lost the 1996 presidential election and came back quipping, that something covers a variety of callings.
He is a high-profile figure at a major lobbying firm, but draws a line against personally lobbying his old colleagues in Congress.
He has gone to the Balkans on missing persons missions as often as he has gone the 15 blocks back to the Senate that he left four years ago for his campaign for the White House.
He is no less a Republican, but no longer the fierce partisan of the past. Indeed, Dole often is a conciliator, a voice for bipartisanship. A wry voice, his wisecrack humor still a trademark, but without the harsh edges.
''When we get out of here, I'd like to make commercials with you,'' President Clinton, who beat him, told Dole at a White House ceremony the other day. ''I'll be your straight man.''
Dole is a TV political commentator on Comedy Central, the role in which he will be appearing at the Republican National Convention this summer.
The day after Dole joined the select company of the defeated, the presidential nominees who lost, he got a call from a Democrat who had been there, former Sen. George McGovern.
''He said, 'Don't despair, it's just going to be different,''' Dole recalled, reminiscing in an interview at the law firm he joined in 1997.
''I ran for president,'' Dole said. ''I did the best I could. We didn't win. So get on with your life. Politics isn't everything.
''I think as long as you behave yourself and just become sort of a senior something ...'' The thought trails away.
''So we just cruise along. It's kind of fun,'' said Dole, 77 this month.
Dole's cruise includes his role as special counsel at one of the big three lobbying firms in Washington, a job he took at a reported $600,000 a year in 1997, saying from the start that he would not go back to his former colleagues to ask for votes or favors. He sees clients and potential clients, deals with foreign interests for the firm and advises its hands-on lobbyists on whom to see and what to seek at the Capitol.
Dole served as Senate Republican leader for 11 years, longer than anyone else, and then became the GOP star in the largely Democratic firm of Verner, Lipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand. Dole's wife, Elizabeth, is about to move into an office there, too.
Mrs. Dole, who has served in the Cabinet and as president of the American Red Cross, ran for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination but didn't get as far as the primaries. There has been speculation about her as a vice presidential nominee with Gov. George W. Bush, but Dole said he doubts that will happen.
Dole, whose war wounds cost him the use of his right arm, leads the fund-raising effort for a World War II memorial on the Mall in Washington. He is chairman of the International Commission on Missing Persons in Bosnia, and has been to the region a dozen times in that role. He's going again this month.
Since he left the Senate, Dole says, he's only been back to visit about 10 times. He served more than 35 years in Congress, more than 27 as senator from Kansas. He resigned on June 11, 1996, trying to energize his lagging challenge to Clinton.
Dole also is chairman of the Federal City Council, an organization that promotes the capital. He campaigns for awareness and testing for prostate cancer, the disease he had and beat. He still makes appearances to help Republican candidates raise campaign funds. He's also done one for Mayor Anthony Williams of the District of Columbia, a Democrat, despite some Republican gripes about it.
When Dole turned up as the mystery guest at a Democratic dinner for Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut three weeks ago, he joked that he'd had to do shows at two or three hotels a week since he lost the election.
Then into the routine, with the assurance that he'd soon leave so that the Democrats could start beating up on Republicans. ''I'm told a Viagra side effect for some men in their 50s is that their hair turns gray,'' Dole said, glancing at Dodd, and winking at Clinton.
Dole, of course, did a television commercial for Viagra. ''I made a few bucks, gave most of it away,'' he said. He also appeared in a Visa ad, just after the election, lamenting ''I just can't win'' when he couldn't cash a check in his own home town without showing his ID.
In his 1998 book, ''Great Political Wit,'' Dole wrote that the ad, and his post-election appearances on late-night television shows were the start of his post-political career. ''By going on television to poke fun at the campaign just concluded, I hoped to shatter the tradition of presidential also-ran silence,'' Dole said. ''Most of all, I wanted to show that there is indeed life after politics.
''And that losing an election does not mean losing your sense of humor.''
It did mean changing an image. Dole said people had known him as the sourpuss of the Democratic attack ads. They also knew him as the candidate who snarled darkly to George Bush to ''stop lying about my record'' in their contest for the 1988 presidential nomination. And as the vice presidential nominee who said in 1976 that all the conflicts of the 20th Century were ''Democrat wars.'' His opponent, Walter F. Mondale, said Dole ''richly earned his reputation as hatchet man'' that night.
Dole recalls campaigning in Jackson, Miss., after that, and sending an aide to a hardware store to buy him a hatchet. ''I pulled it out of the sack. I said I'm supposed to be the hatchet man. Here's my hatchet.''
Not now. Dole points out that he hasn't been jumping on Clinton, or on Vice President Al Gore, the certain Democratic presidential candidate, as much as some Republicans want him to.
Dole quotes McGovern's explanation of his attendance at the funeral of Richard M. Nixon's wife, despite their bitter 1972 rivalry and Watergate.
''You can't go on campaigning forever,'' McGovern said.
Reflecting on his career in a speech to senators earlier this year, Dole said one of life's milestones is to look back ''and be almost as thankful for the setbacks as for the victories.
''Losing means that at least you were in the race,'' he said.
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