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Empower America Cast in Key Role in Dole Campaign

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In the past two months, perhaps no trio of Republicans has shared the spotlight with Bob Dole as much as Jack F. Kemp, William J. Bennett, and Lamar Alexander.

All three are influencing Mr. Dole's presidential campaign in different ways, yet they have something in common: All have been waiting in the wings as co-directors of Empower America, the Washington think tank that promotes "progressive conservative policies based on principles of economic growth, international leadership, and cultural renewal."

Empower America was founded in 1993 by Mr. Kemp, who is now Mr. Dole's running mate, and Mr. Bennett, the former secretary of education and White House "drug czar," along with former United Nations Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber.

The organization has not earned the scholarly reputation of more established conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.

But the Washington-based outfit has provided funding, staffing, and organization to help Messrs. Kemp, Bennett, and Alexander refine their policy ideas--including school choice and the devolution of federal education programs--and expand their political bases after departing from public office.

"This is an operation that was set up for the party out of power," said Thomas E. Mann, the director of governmental studies at the centrist Brookings Institution.

And as the 1996 campaign season has unfolded, Empower America and its leaders have become influential in helping Mr. Dole define his agenda, especially on education.

Unique Roles

To be sure, all three Republicans were already highly visible before Empower America.

Mr. Kemp, a former secretary of housing and urban development and New York congressman, is the supply-side-economics advocate who lends credibility to Mr. Dole's proposal to cut federal income taxes by 15 percent and who appeals to moderate Democrats and minorities.

Mr. Bennett, whose Book of Virtues was a best seller and whose criticism of off-color music lyrics and daytime television talk shows solidified his reputation as a cultural critic, was tapped by the Dole campaign last week to spearhead a new theme--that the nation is suffering from a moral crisis. After criticizing Mr. Dole earlier this year and supporting Mr. Alexander's presidential bid in the GOP primaries, Mr. Bennett has been a vigorous campaigner for the Dole-Kemp ticket. He was named a campaign co-chairman last month.

And voucher legislation first prepared in 1992 by Mr. Alexander, as secretary of education in the Bush administration, has been the basis for Mr. Dole's "opportunity scholarship" proposal in an election in which voters say education is at the top of their agenda. Mr. Alexander, a former governor of Tennessee, became a co-director of Empower America in 1994.

The presence of these three men "reflects a commitment to a set of ideas and policies that have been given a great deal of attention by Empower America," said Milton Bins, the chairman of the Council of 100, a group of African-American Republicans that works on policy development, and the co-chairman of Mr. Dole's education task force.

Education History

One of the first efforts Empower America took on was the 1993 California ballot initiative that would have provided parents $2,500-per-child vouchers for use at any public, private, or religious school in the state.

Messrs. Kemp, Bennett, and Alexander worked in support of the initiative, which failed by a wide margin, by appearing at pro-voucher rallies around the state, serving as the drawing cards at fund-raisers, and writing newspaper opinion pieces.

James Weber, the brother of Vin Weber, was the initiative's campaign manager.

Kevin Teasley, the executive director of the voucher campaign, said Empower America's support for the initiative help propel vouchers as a national issue.

"The fact that we had national support for Proposition 174 really woke up the giant," he said.

Another observer said the organization's support for the voucher initiative had another, more political, purpose as well.

"That was clearly Jack Kemp's effort to organize California," said the observer, who tracks GOP education policy. "You look at who was working it, doing it, making it happen, they're all tied to Empower America. Those things don't have a great chance of winning, but they have a great way of mobilizing support."

In September 1994, Mr. Alexander and Mr. Bennett held a news conference urging defeat of the Clinton administration's reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Their effort failed, largely because the bill had been in the works for more than a year by the time the two former education secretaries weighed in.

After the Republicans took over Congress in January 1995, Mr. Alexander and Mr. Bennett advocated the elimination of the Department of Education and the devolution of federal education programs to the states.

Character-Shaping Plans

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., asked Mr. Bennett, Mr. Alexander, and Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., to craft a package of education legislation. But the package was never unveiled.

Mr. Bennett and Mr. Coats did prepare a series of 19 bills designed to "highlight and encourage the character-shaping institutions of American society."

Their "Project for American Renewal" would have created voucher programs and experimental single-sex schools, but it received little attention.

Lately, Mr. Bennett has targeted rap and rock-and-roll lyrics as well as daytime TV talk shows in his campaign against what he sees as America's declining culture.

And while the November election will render a verdict on Mr. Dole's agenda--including its Empower America themes--officials at the organization plan to plow ahead with their efforts regardless of the election results.

After the campaign, Empower America plans to continue promoting school choice, and Mr. Alexander is expected to take a lead role.

"We're planning on [Mr. Alexander] coming back and being a part of a big school-choice initiative," said spokeswoman Nicole Fluet.

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