With polls showing him trailing Bill Clinton by up to 20 points, Mr Dole had come under intense pressure in recent days to extricate himself from the quagmire of the Senate floor and spend more time taking his message to the country. But few expected him to go any further than step down - formally or informally - as the Majority leader.
Instead, the 72-year old Kansan chose yesterday to make a clean break. "My time to leave has come," he said, his voice cracking yet displaying an eloquence that usually eludes him. "I stand before you without office, as a private citizen, a Kansan, an American, just a man." His deficit in the polls did not discourage him. "I'll do it the hard way because little has come to me except the hard way. Many dismiss my chances of victory but I don't find disheartening." But at this point it was the White House or bust: "To give all and to risk all, I must leave here."
Mr Dole, whose term runs until January 1999, said he would resign around 11 June, to allow Jim Graves, the Republican Governor of Kansas, time to nominate a substitute.
"You've succeeded in surprising us all," President Clinton told Mr Dole when he called the White House to break the news.
Once the initial shock had abated, the logic dictating Mr Dole's change of heart seemed compelling. By conducting his campaign from the Senate, Mr Dole had been ensnared by Democratic manoeuvring that made a mockery of his claim to be a master legislator. Now he is free, relaunching his campaign, and cutting loose from a congress whose unpopularity has been a prime reason for his own.
The decision is not without risks. Mr Dole has been an abysmal campaigner. He must sharpen his speaking style and money is a problem compared with the Clinton operation, which is flush with cash.
Resigned to a struggle, page 17Reuse content