Playing to what is seen as widespread public cynicism with the political establishment, she told her audience, not quite accurately: "I'm not a politician and, frankly, I think that's a plus today." Dressed in a flame- red suit with clusters of pearls at her throat, Mrs Dole, who looks little more than half her 62 years, spoke for half an hour and wove in and out of the audience, frequently addressing her remarks to prominent local Republicans by name. Stressing the breadth of her experience, she also cannily dispelled some of the early criticisms of her bid.
Infuriated by charges of lacking spontaneity, she spoke fluently and without notes. She banished charges of "fuzziness" by quoting facts and figures from her time as transport and labour secretaries in Republican administrations, and about overhauling the national blood transfusion service at her time at the Red Cross. She highlighted education, defence, taxes and the drug problem as priorities that needed "not polls but leadership".
As well as dwelling on her credentials - including years of campaigning in support of her husband, Bob, a 1996 presidential nominee - her repeated emphasis on "values" suggested a theme that will dominate not only her campaign, but that of Republicans as they try to regain the White House from a president tarnished by the Lewinsky affair.
Next to her on the platform, Mrs Dole had representatives of the constituencies she clearly believes to be hers: a "working mother" concerned about moral values, a 12-year-old black girl with ambitions "to be president one day" and a local teacher, a man, striving for higher standards in publicly funded schools. Mrs Dole was also starring in campaign advertisements, to be aired on Iowa and New Hampshire television from last night, in an effort to woo a market in the two states seen as crucial to any presidential campaign.
Mrs Dole did not, however, name her committee or announce any prominent backers, an omission which, with the amateurish choreographing of yesterday's event, revealed just how far her campaign organisation lags behind that of George W Bush, the governor of Texas and the early favourite for the Republican nomination.
Mr Bush, who announced his exploratory committee last weekend in a fanfare of publicity from his home state capital, had attracted an impressive spread of Republican names and power-brokers. He has also obtained the backing of the Republican parties in 14 states, including Mrs Dole's home state of North Carolina, where her campaign in effect began last year.
A statewide poll published to coincide with Mrs Dole's visit to Iowa also contained bad news for her, showing that Iowa Republicans entitled to vote in next year's caucuses prefer Mr Bush by a very large margin - even though she has been a frequent visitor to Iowa and Mr Bush has yet to visit. The poll, which mirrored national polls, showed Mr Bush taking 36.7 per cent of the vote and Mrs Dole just 16.4 per cent. When Mrs Dole visited New Hampshire a month ago for a series of private meetings with potential backers and a speech to the chamber of commerce, she was ahead in that state. Since then, Mr Bush's campaign - also still not registered formally - has gathered momentum, while Mrs Dole's has seemed to stagnate.
Among Iowa Republicans at her Des Moines rally yesterday, few but her most enthusiastic supporters were willing to commit themselves 100 per cent to her cause. Many of the white cards appealing for money an d help remained on people's seats after they had left, and the desks registering campaign volunteers were far from overwhelmed. Phrases such as "disappointed" (in the poll results), "a formidable task" (in relation to her chances against Mr Bush), and "I haven't completely made up my mind yet" (about whether to sign up for her campaign) were heard all over the hall after she left.
While the campaign for next year's election is at an extremely early stage, it is well known that an early poll lead can compound a candidate's advantages as it draws money and ambitious individuals to his (or her) side. One consolation for Mrs Dole is that despite the gap between herself and Mr Bush, she is far ahead of the rest of the 10-strong Republican field. The fact that she is a woman, moreover, with a high level of national recognition could also be to her advantage.
The Second Dole to Aim for White House
BORN IN 1936 in North Carolina, Elizabeth Hanford Dole is married to Bob Dole, the former Republican senator from Kansas and unsuccessful presidential candidate against Bill Clinton in 1996. A lawyer and official in the Nixon administration, she worked on the Reagan-Bush campaign team in 1980. She assisted with the transition team, and served in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for public liaison for the first two years of the administration before moving into the cabinet. From 1983 to 1987 Mrs Dole was Reagan's secretary for transportation, the first woman to hold the post. President George Bush - the father of George W Bush, her main opponent for Republican nomination to the White House race - appointed her Secretary of Labour. She left government in 1990.