Dole debacles drag him deeper into trouble

This was when his presidential campaign was supposed to roll. Instead, Republican candidate Bob Dole has inflicted upon himself a new series of small disasters, horrifying his advisers and prompting a number of Congressional Republicans to break ranks with their nominee to avoid being dragged down to defeat this autumn.

In the first week of July, Mr Dole succeeded in deepening his party's split over abortion and getting on the wrong side of the smoking argument by suggesting that tobacco might not neccessarily be addictive. Now he has dug two more pits and fallen into each of them: first by resurrecting the controversy over the ban on assault weapons, which is a sure winner for President Bill Clinton, and then by seeming to snub the country's leading black organisation.

Publicly, the Dole camp insists it was a "scheduling problem" that prevented him addressing the annual conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in North Carolina last week. There matters might have rested - until Mr Dole said he feared he was being "set up" for a hostile reception at the traditionally pro-Democrat NAACP.

The consequence, as so often in Mr Dole's rambling mode of stump politics, was to turn a minor squall into a tempest, made only fiercer by criticism from arguably the two most popular Republicans in the country, the former Congressman and Cabinet member, Jack Kemp, and retired General Colin Powell.

Indeed, "disappointment" at Mr Dole's no-show seems only to have hardened General Powell's determination to stay as clear of the 1996 campaign as possible. That he would refuse to be Mr Dole's vice-presidential running mate has been a foregone conclusion for months. Now he has made it clear that he will not campaign actively for Mr Dole, and has no desire to play a feature role at next month's nominating convention in San Diego.

Given the pressure being put upon him by anxious Republican leaders, General Powell has little choice but to speak in San Diego. But the fuss around him only draws attention from Mr Dole.

The polls only confirm the Republicans' sorry state. The latest of them, by CNN-Time, gives Mr Clinton a virtually unchanged lead of 15 per cent. State by state, the picture is even more disheartening, with Mr Clinton far ahead in 25 states that would give him 315 electoral college votes, more than the 270 needed to win. Even in Republican strongholds such as Florida and Texas, the President is neck-and-neck with Mr Dole.

So dire has been Mr Dole's performance that even his former colleagues in Congress are showing signs of rebellion. Mr Dole had hoped to make welfare reform a major issue. Instead Republican Congressmen have agreed to a compromise Bill meeting Mr Clinton's requirements, that may be passed within the month.

If Mr Dole cannot get a grip on his campaign, some predict rebellion could spread to the convention itself. "Bob Dole has run for President three times and still hasn't learnt how," the conservative commentator George Will said yesterday. Another four weeks like the last four, and "there could be serious insurrection in San Diego".

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