For the long line of fairgoers in the Pride of Kansas building Saturday – their eyes weren’t on the prize vegetables or the giant thousand-pound pumpkin.

It was all about Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum Baker.

At least, for the Behnkes of Bushton, it was. Carolyn Behnke wore a 1996 Dole/Kemp presidential campaign button she found in an antique shop. Her husband, Robert, sported a patriotic flag shirt. Robert even brought a book Dole wrote – “Great Presidential Wit” and asked him to sign it.

The couple’s young grandson Colin snapped a photo of his grandparents with the former senators.

“It was a real thrill – the highlight of the fair,” said Carolyn Behnke with excitement – adding they might display the book at the Bushton museum.

“I just appreciate all they’ve done,” said Robert, adding. “I just wish (Dole) would have won the presidency.”

Calling it the senior senators tour, the former Kansas Congressional leaders greeted fairgoers for several hours at the Kansas State Fair – shaking hands, posing for photos and reminiscing about their days in Washington. Mid-afternoon, the two moved to the fair’s Eisenhower building, where they met fairgoers at the Eisenhower Memorial booth amid a backdrop of Eisenhower cutouts.

Dole is on a mission to get a memorial built for former president and general Dwight D. Eisenhower. He took the reins of the fundraising effort last week, saying his hope is to raise $150 million in private funds.

Dole served under Eisenhower, a fellow Kansan, in Italy. He said Eisenhower was a great man and a great president that deserved the recognition, adding other veterans share his views.

“Ike was our hero, and he still is a hero to me,” Dole told The News Saturday as he sat at the booth promoting the memorial. “We’d like to think maybe in the lifetime of some of us World War II veterans, it would be completed so those who are still around could be there.

“Ike was our hero, and he is still a hero to millions of sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters.”

Dole added that Congress has had “16 years to do something – and spent a lot of money – $40 or $50 million – and nothing has happened.”

Dole said he had the support of all four living presidents, as well as Kassebaum Baker, who has been on the memorial’s advisory committee for several years.

Kassebaum Baker, who is living in Morris County, said objections from the Eisenhower family about the project’s design has slowed the process initially. Now they just need the money.

“It’s a lofty goal,” she said of Dole’s plan, adding that Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts had said if they can’t get the appropriations funding from Congress soon, it might be tough to get it.

At present, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission has raised between $1 to $2 million, said Chris Cimko, a spokeswoman for the commission.

The Eisenhower project won final approval for architect Frank Gehry’s revised design and now must raise funds to begin construction, according to The Associated Press. Congress already appropriated $60 million for design and planning, of which $17 million was still on hand in July.

Meet and greet

Promoting the project, however, was just one aspect of Dole’s fair visit.

Kassebaum Baker said Dole had asked her a few months ago to join him at the fair. Dole attended last year’s fair and visited with fairgoers.

“I said ‘Bob, you and I have done an awful lot of fairs,’” Kassebaum Baker laughed, adding she used to come before she was in office as a 4-H leader with her children.

“We worked together 18 years,” Dole said of Kassebaum Baker. “We got a long well. Sometimes we didn’t vote the same, but not very often.”

Unlike Dole, however, Kassebaum Baker said she took a break from their first four-hour stint at the Pride of Kansas building to have ice cream at the AMBUCs Sweet Shop with her son and his family.

“This fair is always important – I rarely miss the Hutchinson fair,” Dole said. I’ve seen a lot of old friends. ... I don’t care what party they are in – I’m happy to see them.”

That included Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt and his family. They stood in line to see Dole and Kassebaum Baker at the Pride of Kansas building. In fact, Schmidt said, while he was working for Kassebaum Baker in the 1990s, he met his wife, Jennifer, who was working for Dole.

“We wanted the chance to say hello,” Schmidt said. Wife Jennifer was wearing a Dole T-shirt and they were with their daughters, Claire, 10, and Caroline, 11.

Former Attorney General Carla Stovall Steckline also got in line – saying she still remembers how Kassebaum Baker helped get her start into politics. She interned for the senator in 1979 while still in college. She gave her a copy of a book she wrote about her husband, agriculture radio broadcaster Larry Steckline.

“I’ll never forget that phone call,” she said, adding it was right after Kassebaum Baker first was elected to office and she had called Steckline personally to give her the job. “Throughout my career, she has been such a role model and mentor to me.”

Other staffers stopped to say hello, as well. Janeal Cabbage, of Hutchinson, said she worked for Dole in the 1980s. Chuck Bender, of Halstead, said he helped run Dole’s phone bank during the Iowa Caucus in 1996, asking people how they planned to vote.

“If you ever need anything, let me know,” Bender said to Dole.

Sandra Isom, of Inman, led a group of foreign exchange students through the line to meet the senators. But others, including Gary and Marie Cotterill of Cherryville, just wanted to say thank you.

“I had a personal assist from Senator Dole,” said Cotterill, a banker, who said Dole’s swift action resolved a banking issue he was experiencing at the time. “I just want to personally thank him.”