A tortured Dole plods well-worn primary path

If only there were no elections, and all that mattered was endorsements by the party's great and good. If only a nominee emerged by consensus of his peers, selected on the grounds of age, gravitas, experience, achievement. If only. Bob Dole would long since have been anointed as the Republican challenger to Bill Clinton this autumn.

Alas, the rules of the game are different. Some time this spring Bob Dole - senior Senator from Kansas, for 12 years the Republican leader in the Senate and by any yardstick among the towering figures of recent American politics - may indeed emerge as his party's choice to recapture the White House from the Democrats. But it will only have been after an ordeal which in the best of circumstances will have consumed far more of his money and energy than he ever expected, and one which, by the Dole law of rewards properly earned, he should have been spared. After all this is his fourth, and at 72 his last, bid for national office.

As Gerald Ford's vice-presidential candidate in 1976, he lost. Running in his own right for the White House in 1980 and again in 1988, he lost. Surely now in 1996 it is his turn. Unfortunately, first of all there's a campaign to survive.

Bob Dole on the stump, as opposed to Bob Dole the war hero or Bob Dole the consummate legislator, is an excruciation. He knows he is no good at it. The smile is tight, almost a grimace. No folksy gimmicks for him when he addresses his supporters. In his Washington uniform of starched shirt and cufflinks, crisp pressed suit and tassled loafers, he looks the authoritative and consummate insider that he is. One-on-one, he can be witty and warm - but never enough to disguise a fervent wish that the entire process would simply disappear.

Hence too the protective retinue lined up on the podium at every appearance: not Secret Service men but a selection of the state governors and congressmen who have endorsed him. Twenty-two of the 31 Republican governors are on board, collected like votes for a tight Senate bill. Dutifully they troop up on stage, placing their state organisations at his disposal - Terry Branstad here in Iowa, Steve Merrill in New Hampshire, and so on across the country. But no army of dignitaries can ward off the numbing banality of Dole the public speaker.

"I wanna talk about America, and making America great again," he invariably begins, in that clipped Kansan twang. Then follows a ragbag of generalities about values, taxes, the return of power to the states, and of course the balanced budget which would knock 2 per cent off interest rates. Finally the weary peroration, the stress on his experience: "I've been tested, I don't have risky ideas, I've worked with presidents, I've learned from presidents, I know the job."

George Bush, famously, lacked the "vision thing". But compared with Bob Dole he was a teeming fountain of ideas. Mr Dole positively distrusts ideas (hence his visible discomfort at over-exposure to Newt Gingrich). He is a pragmatist, a compromiser who understands that politics is the art of the possible. For better or worse though, visions are part and parcel of presidential politics.

And what would he do, once in the White House? Says Dole, "I'm just gonna serve." Only obliquely does he refer to his most valiant service of all for his country, under German fire in Italy in 1945, which cost him the use of his right arm, and almost his life.

Today Mr Dole faces another kind of torment, the awful gnawing possibility that once again he will ultimately be defeated. Three months ago his nomination looked an uninspiring certainty. Today he remains the favourite, though only just. But vulnerability has brought a curious nobility which had previously escaped him; if he does come to grief, the moment will in its way be tragic.

Bob Dole may be a relic of the past, standard-bearer of a Republican party which vanished with the Gingrich-led conservative takeover of 1994, forced into uneasy homage to the religious right, especially powerful here in Iowa. But he has given his life to politics, he has been embroiled in no scandal, he peddles no snake oil like his rivals, and his legislative record has won him bipartisan respect. "Frankly," one Democratic senator reportedly remarked in private, "in a secret ballot half my colleagues would vote for him as President."

Indeed, had he not misread New Hampshire's loathing of taxes in 1988, he and not George Bush might have been elected that year, and President Dole might be completing his second term. To prepare himself for 1996, he has taken every "No-New-Taxes" pledge in sight. But once again, another Yankee patrician - this time one from the New Jersey horse country who has never fought an election in his life - has emerged from nowhere to threaten him, armed with novelty, a populist flat tax plan, and unprecedented negative advertising.

Steve Forbes is everything Bob Dole resents: born rich, "untested" by adversity, who simply doesn't deserve to be where he is. But by his own abrasive standards, he has borne the torment stoically, biting back his cutting, self-destructive wit. "Stop lying about my record," snarled Bob Dole at George Bush eight years ago, in a remark that sealed his image as a sour, mean loser. This time surrogates like Mr Merrill are doing the obligatory Forbes-bashing in TV counter-ads, while Mr Dole plods along the platitudinous high road. But their cost is heavy, even for his well- financed campaign.

As today's climax in Iowa has neared, Mr Dole has been emphasising his Washington record on behalf of cornbelt farmers, his military heroism and his credentials with the Christian right. Every sign is he will win; by 10 to 15 percentage points, the pundits believe. Perhaps it will be enough to see him safely next week through the minefield of New Hampshire. But look again at 1988. In Iowa Mr Dole scored 37 per cent, a more convincing victory than is likely this time. But Mr Bush beat him in New Hampshire, and four weeks later had finished him off.

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