Dole heads queue of would-be presidents

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That most ardently awaited moment in the calendar of American presidential elections has arrived, when great men trek across the February snows of New Hampshire. There, for a brief instant, stump meetings supplant television attack ads as the coinage of political campaigning and when even foreign reporters find candidates for the White House queuing up to shake their hand. Thus it was last weekend. Except this is February 1995, not February 1996.

With a dinner here on Sunday, the race for the Republican nomination to challenge Bill Clinton next year has officially begun. Nine candidates or potential candidates attended. For the next 12 months those of them who are serious will scarcely spend a week without visiting New Hampshire, key to a compressed primary season where 70 per cent of the delegates to the party convention will be decided in six weeks. Hence the early start, and the turn-out to woo the 1,400 party activists gathered in the local Holiday Inn, who had paid $100 (£63) a head for the privilege of a cold pasta and seafood dish, a glass or two of pink Zinfandel and eight- minute speeches from each of the aspirants.

The evening produced two clear winners. One was New Hampshire, not just its Republican party, $100,000 richer on the night, but also the state's right, contested by upstarts Arizona and Delaware, to hold the first primary of the season. That traditional and lucrative practice however will surely not change now, even if, as Governor Stephen Merrill says with a smile "we have to hold the primary next week."

One who would be only too delighted if it did is Senate Majority leader Bob Dole.He may be 71, and Washington may be the dirtiest word in the political lexicon, but the Kansas senator, the ultimate Congressional insider, is streets ahead.

Three polls at the weekend gave him between 35 and 45 per cent of the potential vote. His closest rivals present on Sunday, the right-wing columnist Pat Buchanan and Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, are hardly in double figures, and rest (including former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander and Senators Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Richard Lugar of Indiana) nowhere. Only the inscrutable General Colin Powell, credited with 15 or 20 per cent if he were to run as a Republican, is within striking distance.

Mr Dole seems the anointed one. Compared to the hard-edged, relentless Mr Gramm, vaunting his conservatism and vowing to "run like a sheriff in every county," Bob Dole - of the once legendary quick temper and slashing tongue - seems sweetness and light incarnate.

But the evening sent other, more troubling signals. Abortion obviously has the potential to cause concern, dividing Republicans between moderates and conservatives in a year when social issues could dominate the campaign. Another risk is complacency. If a bare four mentions of the present White House occupant by nine speakers is anything to go by, the Republicans already reckon ultimate victory in 1996 is in the bag.

But President Bill Clinton, the self-proclaimed "Comeback Kid" in this very state four years ago, should never be written off. And his potential opponents hardly set the world on fire that evening.

How many of them will actually be on the New Hampshire ballot 12 months hence is anyone's guess. Barring acts of God, Dole, Gramm and Alexander are certainties. But Senators Lugar and Specter may well opt out, and so too may Pat Buchanan, who has no chance of repeating his 36-per-cent showing which so embarrassed George Bush here in 1992. The pitch of Lynn Martin, Labor Secretary in the Bush campaign, was plainly for Vice-President. California Congressman Bob Dornan and Alan Keyes, a former senior US envoy to the United Nations, were merely light relief.

And what of those who weren't there? General Powell obviously, but also Governor Pete Wilson of California, and Governor William Weld from next- door Massachusetts, who preferred a trip to India at the head of a trade mission to the one-hour drive north from Boston.

Mr Weld, another pro-choice supporter, could be a mite too liberal for New Hampshire voters. But the polls put him second or third behind Senator Dole in a Powell-less race and he can put together an organisation here in an instant.

Even so, the luxury of indecision is finite. "They've got until early summer at the latest to get in," insisted New Hampshire's former Governor, now Senator, Judd Gregg. "Next year's compressed schedule makes this primary even more important than usual. Whoever wins will have a tremendous boost; he'll be the dominant news figure at the most crucial moment." And, added Stephen Duprey, the state's Republican party chairman:"Right now, it's Bob Dole's race to lose."