As it turned out, Dole supplied the issue all by himself.
In the last five weeks, by the sweat of his own stubborn effort, Dole has become the candidate of Big Tobacco. In crude political shorthand - the kind that resonates with casual voters - Dole is now seen as the guy who isn't sure that cigarettes are really addictive.
No wonder so many Republicans are apoplectic these days. They know this election won't be won or lost over tobacco, but that's not the point. For many, what this affair demonstrates - as do the flaps last week over his missing the NAACP convention and softening his opposition to the assault-weapons ban - is that Bob Dole lacks the tools for political combat in 1996.
``This comparison may sound unfair,'' says David Tell, a key member of George Bush's campaign team in 1992, ``but we're starting to worry about what Bob Dole will say and do next - the same way we worried about Dan Quayle during the Bush years. Because, with Dole, you never know when the guy is going to mess up very badly.''
First, Dole said back on June 13 that cigarettes aren't necessarily addictive - which contradicts the 1988 verdict of Ronald Reagan's surgeon general, C. Everett Koop. Then he amplified his remarks by saying: ``A lot of other things aren't good. . . . Some would say milk's not good.''
A few weeks later, citing the Food and Drug Administration's plans to regulate cigarettes as a drug, he voiced concern for the ``First Amendment rights'' of tobacco companies. Then he snarled at NBC's Katie Couric when she pursued the issue, and he suggested that Koop might have been brainwashed by ``the liberal media.''
A number of Republicans are privately toting up the damage this way:
* Dole has put himself on the unpopular side of a major health issue. Pollsters for Philip Morris say that 89 percent of Americans identify teen smoking as a ``serious problem'' - and 72 percent give Bill Clinton credit for trying to solve it.
* Dole has hurt his own bid to narrow the gender gap. Clinton is far more popular among women voters, and surveys in key states indicate that Dole can't even count on the strong support of suburban Republican women. These women care about children and smoking, and Dole's comments on tobacco have reinforced their preexisting doubts about him over issues such as guns and abortion.
* Dole's snappishness with Couric - warning her that she might be violating federal rules because she appeared to be ``sticking up for the Democrats'' - resurrects the Old Dole image that his backers have sought to bury. Last autumn, his close friend and fellow ex-senator Warren Rudman insisted in an interview: ``People think Bob is maintaining a superhuman effort not to blow it by getting angry. Bob is beyond that.''
* Dole's willingness to wing it - even wife Elizabeth, sitting right beside him on TV, couldn't dissuade him from duking it out with Couric - suggests that his campaign lacks discipline. In private, some of his most loyal supporters, including fund-raisers, are wondering whether he is simply unwilling to listen to his closest advisers.
* Dole has demonstrated his inability to control the agenda - the first commandment of a national campaign. His aides have complained in recent weeks that the media are harping on the tobacco issue, but other Republicans believe that if Dole had compelling campaign themes of his own, themes that would seize the public's attention, then nobody would be talking about tobacco anymore.
``Where is his own proactive vision? He doesn't have one,'' says William Ballenger, a former Republican state senator who writes a political newsletter in Michigan. ``Instead, he wants us to wait until the convention. For him to sit around and say, `I'm keeping my vision under a bushel basket,' while he continues to commit these gaffes all the time - it's stupefyingly dumb.''
* Washington political analyst Charles Cook says that the tobacco flap ``has become larger than life, and it's threatening to become the supermarket-scanner story of 1996,'' a reference to the '92 incident that painted President Bush as out of touch with everyday life in the checkout line.
``I've spent the last 10 days with relatives down South, and they were all talking about it. They think Dole has gone goofy. It looks like there's a disconnect between Dole and where most people are. All over again, this makes him look like he's been in Washington too long, that he's been with too many special interests, and that he has ridden on too many corporate jets.''
Just check out the late-night TV gabfests, where a punch line doesn't work unless the audience is already in the know. Early last week, Jay Leno offered this plot for Independence Day II: ``Bob Dole is president. He convinces the aliens that smoking is safe. They all get emphysema and die.'' And David Letterman had Dole marching in a Joe Camel costume on the Fourth of July.
Worse yet, he sounds a lot like Philip Morris, the tobacco giant that has made lavish campaign donations to Dole, and to the Republican Party, over the last several years. Philip Morris has been running newspaper ads in Europe arguing that ``1-2 glasses of whole milk per day'' could be riskier than secondhand cigarette smoke.
Rarely a day goes by without a fresh reminder from the Clinton camp. Right now, in key battleground states, Clinton is running an anti-tobacco TV ad that portrays him as the friend of children's health and Dole as the pal of the death merchants. Thursday, using the presidency as a bully pulpit, Clinton announced that he had persuaded A&P to remove all cigarette vending machines from its supermarkets.
And just the other day, the latest campaign donation figures were released. During the first quarter of 1996, the tobacco industry gave $1 million to the GOP and only $75,500 to the Democrats. According to Common Cause, the GOP share is the most ever given by the industry to any party in any quarter of a presidential election year.
* The industry used to favor the Democrats, as the Dole camp often points out, and Vice President Gore took tobacco money and even grew the crop on family property. But the money has shifted overwhelmingly to the GOP during the Clinton era, in the wake of evidence that the administration intends to regulate cigarettes as a drug. The FDA is expected to do so this summer.
Dole and the industry have been closely linked since the mid-1980s. Over the years, Dole has received roughly $330,000 directly from three of the biggest tobacco firms. The industry has also markedly increased its donations to the American Red Cross since Elizabeth Dole took over. And some of Dole's closest advisers, past and present, do considerable work for the tobacco industry - as employees or as lawyers and consultants on retainer.
``It's too facile to say that politicians merely echo the views of major contributors,'' says Alex Benes, managing director of the Center for Public Integrity, which monitors campaign donations. ``But over time, these contributors gain access, gain influence, and they create an evolution of thought in the candidate.''
Still, the Dole camp insists that this whole flap will amount to nothing.
One aide put it this way: ``People aren't focusing on the race yet. And when Bob Dole does talk about the real issues - crime, a balanced budget, taxes - he will move votes. He will talk with passion and vision. Sure, it would be nice to do those things now, and sure, the spotlight isn't shining on Clinton's problems the way we'd like it to. But if you're going to have a distraction, better to have it in June and July.''
And political author Larry Sabato adds: ``It's too late for any kind of apology. He's got to change the subject, big time. He's got to produce his economic plan already. He can't afford to wait, because Republicans are already throwing up their hands. What this tobacco thing illustrates, more than anything else, is the old adage: You can't teach an old dog new tricks.''