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.

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