Like Lear, Mr Dole's story is tragedy. He is an heroic failure brought down by the classic flaw of self-delusion

"I try not to kid myself in this business," Bob Dole said, "but there is a lot of momentum out there." A crowd of 400 who had gathered in a school hall on a chilly St Louis afternoon foretelling winter generously took the cue. Solid Midwestern folk, loyal to their native son, they applauded, they cheered, they waved little American flags.

They were playing a game and they knew it, but while they played it their enthusiasm was sincere. For they were truly proud of their plain-spoken Kansan neighbour. Proud that he had risen from humble origins to challenge for the presidency of the United States; proud that he had overcome his grievous war wounds and, crippled in body, had found the inner resources to win election to Congress in 1960 and grow to become one of the most successful and enduring American politicians of the 20th century; proud too that, at the age of 73, he had chosen to stop off in St Louis in the course of an insanely demanding death-or-glory "96-hour victory tour" through 20 states, to his family home of Russell tomorrow, where he will cast his vote.

Is it a victory lap, or is it the old senator's farewell tour? For a man whose life has been a Hollywood-style celebration of the American Dream, winning the presidency would be the finale the script requires. But even the tightening of the polls reported in the last couple of days offers only a tiny sliver of hope. If in Bob Dole's mind he has found momentum - what George Bush called "the Big Mo" - he has left it far too late.

Three times now he has tried for the White House - in 1980, 1988 and 1996 - and three times, barring a miracle, he will have failed.

Things need not have turned out this way. He could have had his happy ending. He could have bowed out of politics triumphantly, the plaudits ringing in his ears, as the longest- serving Republican Senate leader in history. Instead, he will be remembered as a Republican Adlai Stevenson, as the man who tried and tried but never won the big prize.

Mr Dole's story has elements of tragedy. He is a heroic failure whose downfall was precipitated by the classic flaw of self-delusion. His heroism is characterised by extraordinary perseverance, the unquenchable spirit of a man who rediscovered his appetite for life after 39 months in hospital at the end of the Second World War and who every day since has had to wage a series of tiny battles each time he buttons a shirt or sits down to a meal with a knife and fork. His right arm dangles like a rag doll's and in his clenched right fist he always grips a pen, like a porcupine needle, to keep handshakers at bay.

Where he has displayed his tragic lack of self-knowledge is in the notion that his presidential ambitions are made of the stuff the television age requires. For his strength lies not in the grand gesture or calculated Clinton histrionics. He is a musty congressional deal- maker, a straightforward political mechanic who, by force of painful habit, achieves his victories one step at a time. Hubris came in the idea that, glaringly ill-suited as he was to perform the circus tricks required on the US electoral stage, merit would be its own reward. "We're fighting around the clock for America - character does count," he told his adoring St Louis crowd. "The last time I fought around the clock was in Italy in 1945, but the stakes are just as high today as in 1945 . . . Character does mean something. Duty, honour, decency do make a difference in America."

But they do not. Or not enough to tip the balance Mr Dole's way against a man who may fall short on all the ancient virtues but outdoes him in telegenic charm and raw electoral cunning. His pleading, almost despairing appeal in St Louis contained an echo of his outburst last week, "Where's the outrage? Where's the outrage?"

As if to say "How could you? how could you vote for a man like that, so soiled by sin and sleaze, when you could have had a man like me?" There's a touch there of King Lear's no less self-deluded cry "Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend". How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless electorate.

Clinton and history, page 11

Leading article, page 13

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