Court forces Dole to fight for New York

DAVID USBORNE

New York

It was meant to be the state that was locked up for Bob Dole; not so any more. Less than a week before the Republicans in New York get their say about who should be their nominee for the 1996 presidential election, the courts have decided that the party's efforts to keep it a one-man derby are unfair.

The intervention this week by a US appeals court means that New York, which will account for more than 10 per cent of the delegates at the party convention in August, is about to have its first contested Republican primary in its history. Suddenly, next Thursday's vote is vitally important.

The court declared unconstitutional party rules that restrict the ability of candidates to get on to the ballot in the state's 31 electoral districts. Forced to collect more than 1,000 signatures from registered Republicans in each district, candidates had little chance of qualifying without the blessing of the party apparatus.

Doing the anointing has been Republican US Senator Alfonse D'Amato and his choice has always been Mr Dole. Until now, in what to most observers seemed like a perversion of democracy, there was little question but that Mr Dole would simply be handed the state.

Now Mr Dole will have to face competition from Pat Buchanan in about 18 of the districts and, more importantly, from Steve Forbes, whose name will appear on ballots in all of them. State-wide, the New York primary has been transformed into a critical head-to-head between Mr Forbes and Mr Dole.

Notorious for its unpredictably in elections, the state appears to be tilting marginally towards Mr Dole. The latest poll, published by the New York Post, showed Mr Dole leading Mr Forbes by 31 per cent to 27 per cent. Mr Buchanan was trailing with 16 per cent.

Whereas until just days ago, New York could have counted on being largely ignored by the candidates, the state now is preparing for a campaign blitz.

For Mr Dole, who is just showing signs of recovering some balance in the race, this is bad news. He will be forced to spend time and money - which he has in dwindling supply - on the state when he had thought it was not going to be necessary.

It also means that the rich bag of delegates cannot be all his. New York is not a winner-takes-all state, so even if Mr Forbes comes in second, he could take a sizeable chunk of the delegates, with Mr Buchanan perhaps also running away with a few.

The Forbes campaign, re-energised by its candidate's first place earlier this week in Arizona, is jubilant. "We are 1,000 per cent committed to New York," said Gretchen Morgensen, Mr Forbes's press secretary. "We are going to be a huge force in New York. We have been brutalised by the New York State Republican Party."

Mr Buchanan faces a tough battle. He has qualified in only a limited number of districts and his nationalist positions will not go down easily in a state where there is such a mix of ethnicities. A Buchanan campaign organiser from Staten Island was quoted earlier this week as alleging that Jews control all the money in the US and suggesting that South African blacks fared better under apartheid.

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