DODGE CITY, Kansas (AP) — A newly upholstered chair and an American flag dominated Village Square Mall on the west side of Dodge City, the Kansas hometown of Sen. Pat Roberts, who is seeking re-election. But the man who took the seat — and who commanded the audience of more than 200 — wasn't Roberts.
"He's your friend, my friend, Kansas' friend, and Kansas' greatest senator, Bob Dole," Roberts said Monday.
The campaign event for Roberts, who is locked in a suddenly tough re-election battle in typically Republican Kansas, was more an honor ceremony for Dole, the 91-year-old former Senate majority leader, World War II veteran and 1996 Republican presidential nominee.
The event also kicked off a week of Roberts stumping with GOP heavyweights, including 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, 2008 presidential nominee and Arizona Sen. John McCain, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Dole, who plans to campaign with Roberts on Tuesday, held court for nearly an hour, reminiscing about his 46 years in Congress, his effort to spearhead the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. and, now and then, Roberts.
"Pat and I have been friends for some time," said Dole. "When I had a problem in the House getting a bill passed, I'd call Pat."
But Dole's and Roberts' tones were distinct.
Dole hearkened back to his collaboration with the late Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan to ensure that Social Security remains solvent through 2027, recalling how they agreed: "We can't let this fail. There are 30 million Americans who rely on Social Security."
By contrast, Roberts argued that only a Republican majority could fix the Senate's impasse and referred to Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid as "a dictator."
"We have to get the Senate back so we can get things going again," Roberts said.
Republicans need to gain six seats to capture the majority and until this month, Roberts was not considered vulnerable.
But Democrat Chad Taylor's exit from the race — and the rise of independent candidate Greg Orman, a wealthy businessman from the Kansas City suburbs — have suddenly made this seat a national target. Republicans have held both Kansas Senate seats since 1938.
The state Supreme Court last week ordered that Taylor's name be removed from the Nov. 4 ballot. A disgruntled Democratic voter, whose son works for GOP Gov. Sam Brownback's re-election campaign, immediately filed a petition asking that Democrats be forced to name a new nominee, but the court on Tuesday sent the case to a lower court, saying more evidence was needed.
On Monday, several people at the Roberts event in Dodge City said they came to see Dole, who lives in Washington, D.C.
"Bob Dole is the last of the statesmen," said Floris Jean Hampton, a retired rancher who lives near Dodge City. Asked if she would vote for Roberts, Floris said, "Everything's on the table."
Dole appeared physically frail and his formerly-deep voice sounded hoarse. He traveled from the car to the mall in a wheelchair and, once inside the mall, he walked slowly, bracing against a member of his security detail.
But he was sharp discussing issues and unleashed at times his characteristically dry sense of humor.
"I have a litany of things that Pat's done for Dodge City, but at my age I've forgot them all," Dole said.
Dole could bestow upon Roberts some of the bipartisan glow that the longtime Kansas leader sought to impart.
"Bob Dole is universally respected in Kansas," said Bill Lacy, a former Dole aide and current director of the Dole Institute for Politics at University of Kansas in Lawrence. "Bob Dole transcends the politics of today."
Roberts and his campaign have said in recent days they plan to paint Orman as a liberal Democrat and a rubber stamp vote for Reid.
Having eked out victory in a GOP primary in August, Roberts was urged by national Republicans to overhaul his campaign. He admitted during a debate that he visited Dodge City only seven times this year. He told reporters Monday that he visits "every chance I can."
Orman, of Olathe, disclosed in documents submitted to the Senate that he owns assets worth between $21.5 million and $86 million.
Questions have arisen in recent days about the source of Orman's wealth, given his business and personal ties to convicted financier Rajat K. Gupta, a former Goldman Sachs board member sentenced to federal prison in 2012 for insider trading.