Dole hits the road to capitalise on gamble

Quitting as Senate leader has boosted the Republican contender's prospects, writes Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online
Washington - Buoyed by an overwhelmingly favourable response to his decision to leave Congress, Bob Dole took his re-energised presidential campaign to Chicago yesterday, promising lower taxes, less government and "a stronger, prouder America at home and abroad."

Tie-less and sports-jacketed, as if to symbolise his liberation from official Washington, Mr Dole brushed aside polls showing him up to 20 points behind Bill Clinton. He accused the President of "talking right and governing left". A Bob Dole in the White House, he vowed, "will tell people what I'll do, and then do what I say".

Over the next six weeks the presumptive Republican nominee, who stunned Washington by announcing on Wednesday he was resigning from the post of Majority leader and the Senate seat he has held for 27 years, plans to visit a score of major cities across the country. The focus will be on key states like Florida, Illinois and California, essential for victory on 5 November.

Albeit through very different prisms, enthusiastic Republicans and grudging Democrats alike agree that Mr Dole did the right thing in wrenching himself free of an institution he loved and understood as few others, but which has recently dragged down his candidacy.

For Republicans, the clean break was being portrayed as a master stroke that would allow the 72-year-old Kansan to free himself from the legislative coils and project his message to the public at large, drawing distinctions of policy, character and style between himself and an incumbent a generation his junior.

"The real campaign" was about to begin, the Republican National Committee chairman, Haley Barbour, said yesterday.

At the White House the entirely predictable word was that Mr Dole's decision to surrender his powerbase was a desperate move by a desperate man who trails Mr Clinton by up to 20 points; it would distance himself from a deeply unpopular Republican Congress and from House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is arguably the most unpopular politician in America.

But both sides say that if the Majority leader has gambled, it was a risk he had to take, and by a two-to-one margin, those voters who knew of what Mr Dole had done approved of it. Even so, the same CBS poll showed three voters in four still believe Mr Clinton will win a second term.

From today, the normally taciturn and dour Mr Dole must shed a lifetime's habits of deal-making and compromise. Senator Dole must become Citizen Candidate Dole, and craft a genuine policy vision explaining why voters should get rid of an incumbent President who after a choppy start seems in the last year to have got the measure of his job.

Thus Mr Dole will pepper his speeches with words like 'common sense', and 'steadfastness under fire'. He will point to his consistency in areas like foreign policy and balancing the budget - just as the Republicans embark on a $20m (pounds 12m) television advertising campaign lambasting Mr Clinton's deficiencies in those areas.

In this and other ways the party hopes to make up for the acute cash shortage that otherwise might paralyse his campaign in the three months until the August convention in San Diego.

Unlike Mr Clinton, who faced no primary challenge and has $20m left to spend, Mr Dole is down to a legal $1m or less, and will have to rely on such "generic" advertising and guest appearances at party fundraisers to keep up his corner.

Back in the Senate meanwhile, a tense battle is shaping up over the succession as Majority leader. The clear favourite is the current majority whip, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi. But the hard-edged conservativism of Mr Lott, a close ally of Mr Gingrich, is not to some moderates' liking.

His fellow Mississippian, Thad Cochran, also plans to stand, while Senators Don Nickles, of Oklahoma and Pete Domenici, of New Mexico, a close friend of Mr Dole, may also throw their hats into the ring.