Dole ordered to keep smiling as Republican battle grows bitter

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The Independent Online
Manchester, New Hampshire

With last-minute instructions from his wife to "Smile, smile", Bob Dole used a final television debate before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary to try to reassert his lead over his closest rivals, Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander.

Instant polling of viewers of the often raucous exchange on Thursday night suggested that Mr Dole had been only partially successful, however. Most said they were impressed by Mr Buchanan, who declared that his campaign as a "conservative with a heart", stressing jobs and his opposition to America's free trade agreements, had caught fire.

With four days to go, Mr Dole appears to be increasingly vulnerable both to Mr Buchanan, who in most polls is now neck-and-neck with him in first place, as well as to Mr Alexander, who has also shown signs of surging after spending weeks far down the field.

Mr Dole, who is fighting to overcome the perception that he is too old and too sour to beat President Bill Clinton in November, has to win in New Hampshire if he is to pick up speed for the parade of other state primaries that follow swiftly after Tuesday. A loss here could be a crippling blow.

While Thursday's debate was liveliest when Messrs Dole, Buchanan and Alexander exchanged barbs, especially over negative campaign advertising, free trade and taxation, almost as notable was the relatively muted performance of Steve Forbes. There was barely a mention of the millionaire publisher's flat-tax proposal, which until just days ago was propelling him to the top of the polls here.

A tracking poll in yesterday's Boston Globe had Mr Dole clinging on to first place with 25 per cent, just ahead of Mr Buchanan with 22 per cent. Mr Forbes and Mr Alexander were shown tied in third place with 14 per cent.

Two surveys of viewers of the debate gave the edge to Mr Buchanan, however. An ABC poll gave him 29 per cent, Mr Dole 26 per cent, Mr Alexander 18 per cent and Mr Forbes 13 per cent.

Such was the hoopla generated by the very staging of the debate, it was easy to forget that this is only February and that November is nine months away. Almost 1,000 supporters and assorted protesters converged outside WMUR's studio complex in Manchester in freezing temperatures to cheer or boo the candidates as they arrived for the forum. The politicians themselves were obscured by an ocean of placards and banners.

Minutes earlier, Mr Dole visited a group of his supporters at the Stardust Lounge, a night-club a block away from the studios. Joking about his wife's counsel to him, he quipped: "Some of the questions are very serious. But you know, whatever it is, I'll be smiling." He added: "Just remember, when you talk to the press, we won the debate."

Once before the cameras, Mr Dole found himself repeatedly under attack, in particular for continuing to run political attack advertisements. "Senator Dole, you are better than your negative ads," Mr Alexander jabbed. "Why don't you pull them?"

In an attempt at levity, Mr Dole complained about Mr Forbes's attack advertisements on him. Suggesting Mr Forbes might have used kinder photographs of him, he took from his pocket some of his own family snapshots, including one of his pet dog, Leader.

Mr Forbes admitted that he had aired too much negative advertising before last Monday's Iowa caucus vote.

Increasingly troublesome for Mr Alexander are allegations that as governor of Tennessee he improperly used his position to build a personal fortune, for instance by transforming a $1 investment in a Knoxville newspaper into nearly $620,000 (pounds 405,200).

Mr Forbes accused him of having engaged in a series of scams that made him rich.

The harshest and arguably the most important exchanges of the night were between Senator Dole and Mr Buchanan, however. The Buchanan campaign had been rocked by revelations that one of its co-chairmen, Larry Pratt, had attended meetings of white supremacists and militia groups.

Mr Buchanan angrily rebuked Mr Dole for labelling him as an extremist in his advertising and accused the Senator of borrowing from his populist message of preserving jobs. "If I'm an extremist, why are you pirating my ideas and parroting my rhetoric?" Mr Buchanan asked. "I don't think you can call us extremists when you are becoming a pretty good echo of Pat Buchanan."

Mr Buchanan was denounced by both Mr Dole and Mr Alexander for opposing free trade and the Nafta agreement with Mexico and Canada. "Pat is off on this isolationist kick," Mr Dole declared. "Build a fence around America."