Bob Dole begins to lose aura of invincibility

Presidential race: There are doubts whether the Senator, at 72, can last the seven-month marathon that will decide the Republican nomination

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Pity Bob Dole. A year from now, he may yet be the other runner in the frame as Labor Day 1996 kicks off the climactic phase of the chase for Bill Clinton's White House. But that is 12 months away. First he must prevail in a struggle which effectively starts today - seven murderously gruelling months which will decide the Republican presidential nomination.

Thanks to the front-loading of the primary calendar, more states will vote more quickly than ever before. The contest will probably be decided in six weeks next spring. And for Mr Dole, things are going wrong at just the wrong moment.

The primary season proper begins with the Iowa caucuses on 12 February, followed by New Hampshire eight days later, then Delaware, Arizona, a "Yankee Tuesday" of the other New England states, New York, then by mid- March, "Junior" and "Super Tuesdays" across the South, and the Midwestern states of Illinois and Michigan. But long before the real voting begins, straw polls in states from Maine to Florida will be intensely scrutinised.

No matter that these are exercises without value in electoral terms, of such was the notorious Iowa straw poll last month, in which some resourceful citizens are said to have voted three times each. But in politics perception is all. That night, Senator Phil Gramm of Texas had his buses and charter planes running more smoothly, and tied with Mr Dole in a state the Senate Majority Leader had been favoured to win in a canter. The New York Times called the result meaningless and then devoted 44 column inches to it. Mr Gramm proclaimed a historic triumph. Mr Dole, it was agreed, had suffered a damaging setback, and his actions seemed to prove it.

He has, since then, been acting scared. He has pandered to the right- wing activists who have disproportionate influence in the primaries by returning, amid much fanfare, a $1,000 (pounds 645) contribution from a gay group, and at party rallies has ventured such inane pronouncements as "If you want a Ronald Reagan, I'll be Ronald Reagan".

Now he has sacked his Iowa campaign manager, and spent the week before Labor Day, the deepest depths of the American summer break, not, as might be expected from a man of 72, enjoying a few quite days, but on the stump in New Hampshire. So too, it should in fairness be noted, did three of his rivals. In campaign 1996, there is no such thing as a canter.

Last Monday's formal declaration by Governor Pete Wilson of California completed the initial Republican field. The nine contenders cater for every taste. Mr Dole is the combat-seasoned party grandee. Mr Wilson and former governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee are outsiders running "against Washington." Pat Buchanan, who caused George Bush so much trouble in 1992, offers red-meat nationalism and social conservatism. Mr Gramm is the economic conservative, while Arlen Specter and Richard Lugar are worthy senators, one a voice of party moderates, the other an authority on foreign policy. Out on the fire-streaked horizons of the far right may be found California Congressman Robert Dornan, and the former UN diplomat and broadcaster Alan Keyes, the first black to seek the Republican nomination.

Now there are contests within the contest - Gramm versus Buchanan in the chase after conservatives, Wilson against Alexander for the anti-Congress vote. But eight of them have one sight in their target: Bob Dole. And no longer does he appear invincible. True, he remains the undisputed front- runner, as he has been since hostilities were joined. But the expectations game works against him, and some polls have registered a drop in his lead since Iowa. Mr Dole is old, out of tune with the Young Turks who provide the ideological spine of the new Republican majority in Congress. He self- destructed in his previous runs for the presidency, in 1980 and 1988, and, if those same polls are anything to go by, he suddenly looks far less of a sure winner than a few months ago against a reinvigorated Mr Clinton who seems to be getting things right, perhaps now even in Bosnia.

Moreover, as well as in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr Dole must fight on Capitol Hill, where his foes include not only Democrats but far more dangerous figures like his nominal party ally, Mr Gramm. As Majority Leader, he is already blamed by activists for the Senate's failure to endorse Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America". At least as much rides on the impending budget battle between the Republican Congress and a Democratic White House. This autumn promises the most gruelling legislative agenda on Capitol Hill in recent memory. And he must campaign as well. At 72, it could prove too much.

If it does, Mr Wilson or Mr Gramm are the most likely to profit. But other, more intriguing possibilities arise. The Republican field in general fails to excite. Should the Dole campaign unravel, Mr Gingrich, who offers nothing if not excitement, may find the temptation to enter the fray irresistible - despite the visceral dislike he stirs in wide sections of the electorate, and the strong likelihood that if he were to win the nomination next spring he would be trounced by Mr Clinton in the general election. Then there are the possible independents: Colin Powell, Bill Bradley, Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson. The list has never been longer.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable