Dole campaign given a vital fillip

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The Independent Online
RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Senator Bob Dole has strengthened his position against a possible challenge from retired general Colin Powell by winning the backing of Governor Stephen Merrill of New Hampshire, where the first primary of the 1996 election will be held in just over three months.

Governor Merrill's move, which he may announce today, is another sign that Gen Powell may find the Republican nomination next year is no pushover. Although the general is ahead of Mr Dole in the polls in New Hampshire, aligned against him now is the state's young and highly popular Republican Governor, whose endorsement - and organisational clout - has been sought by every candidate.

Gen Powell is due to reveal in the next fortnight if he will run. No one knows which way he will jump but on one point there is universal agreement: for him to win the nomination, victory in New Hampshire is all but essential. "This is an effort by Dole to scare Powell out of the race," said one strategist. It would now be "very difficult for Gen Powell to put something together" in the state, said Vin Weber, a national chairman of the Dole campaign.

Mr Merrill's support for Mr Dole, who holds a commanding lead in the field of declared Republicans, will strengthen doubts about Gen Powell on the party's conservative wing. The Governor had seemed keen on him but this week criticised the liberal leanings of many Powell supporters: "I would have a lot more trouble supporting him than I originally thought."

The endorsement will be a much-needed fillip for Mr Dole's campaign, of late immobilised by the speculation about a Powell candidacy and undermined by growing doubts about his age. Were he to win the White House, the senator would be 73 on taking office.

Meanwhile, elections were taking place in 15 states yesterday. The most closely watched were in Virginia, where Republicans were trying to win outright control of a Southern state's legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. Kentucky could also elect its first Republican governor in 30 years. Either outcome would confirm that the Republican tide so evident in 1994 has not yet run its course.

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