Dole pressed by rivals on left and right

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Des Moines

After his shaky victory in Iowa's Republican caucuses, Senator Bob Dole began the final week of campaigning for the New Hampshire primary yesterday facing a clearly diminished Steve Forbes, but with powerful new challenges emerging to his left and right.

"We won here and we're going to win in New Hampshire, and win and win everywhere after that," Mr Dole told cheering supporters after capturing 26 per cent of the votes of Iowans who had gathered on Monday evening for the caucuses in schools, parish halls and private homes, which traditionally kick off the presidential election year. But in private, Mr Dole's advisers are increasingly worried.

The most obvious threat is Pat Buchanan, the right-wing commentator. He welded together a coalition of Christian conservatives and middle-class workers fearful for their jobs to finish a surprise second with 23 per cent. An elated Mr Buchanan proclaimed yesterday that support for his anti-free trade, pro-life platform was "a victory for a new idea in Republican and national politics''.

A greater danger may be Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee Governor who is starting to benefit from the widespread belief that, in a lacklustre field, he has the best chance of beating President Bill Clinton in November. Mr Alexander, a self-styled "moderate conservative", came a convincing third with 18 per cent, artfully contrasting his youth and freshness with the 72-year-old Mr Dole, the eternal Washington insider. Above all, he won the "expectations game" and has that fleeting but priceless asset of momentum.

In a state that puts a premium on knowing candidates in person, Mr Dole was by far the best known. But his performance was the feeblest ever by a caucus victor, far below his winning 37 per cent in 1988, the last time he sought the White House. In 1996 three-quarters of Iowans said they wanted someone else to carry the Republican banner. Nor can he take heart from Iowa's wretched recent track record at picking winners. Only Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Walter Mondale in 1984 won contested caucuses here and went on to be nominated.

But this unpretentious farmbelt state has fulfilled its appointed task of sifting out the political chaff. All nine candidates insist they will carry on the battle, but the realistic contenders now number at most four: Mr Dole, Mr Buchanan, Mr Alexander, and Mr Forbes - if only because of his bottomless pocket. He spent $4m (pounds 2.5m) in Iowa, mainly on television ads, which netted just 10 per cent, or 10,000 votes, costing $400 apiece.

The shifting picture was clear in a new ABC poll, giving Mr Dole a narrow lead over Mr Buchanan in New Hampshire, with Mr Alexander making up ground, and the multi-millionaire publisher dropping into third place.

After providing the early sensation of the campaign, Mr Forbes was one of the biggest losers here, and badly needs a strong showing next week to remain a credible force.

Mr Forbes cancelled his one scheduled campaign event yesterday in New Hampshire, apparently to rethink his strategy and perhaps cut back on the negative advertising which backfired in Iowa.

Meanwhile Senator Phil Gramm, once considered Mr Dole's toughest opponent, appears out of the running after his dismal 9 per cent showing. So too is his Senate colleague, Richard Lugar, with 4 per cent, and the black former diplomat Alan Keyes, whose Bible-thumping, fire-and-brimstone oratory helped give him 7 per cent of the vote here.

The true winner, though, may have been the man whose job the would-be nominees want. Mr Clinton was in Iowa at the weekend drawing enthusiastic crowds and dispensing presidential good cheer, in contrast to the internecine warfare between the feuding Republicans.

Predictions of a record turnout dissolved into the reality of barely 100,000 voters, only 18 per cent of registered Republicans and one of the poorest showings in recent years. Disgust at the barrage of negative television spots and disappointment at the quality of the field seem to have made many Iowans stay away.

The result can only delight the President's advisers, who believe Mr Buchanan's ascent will propel the Republicans away from the vital centre ground - exactly what happened in 1992, when the former Reagan speechwriter took on George Bush in the primaries, with fatal consequences in the general election.

Thanks to his impressive organisation, Mr Dole still remains the best bet to win the nomination. But in match-ups against Mr Clinton, he loses every time, as does every other Republican candidate. Even if Mr Alexander breaks through in New Hampshire, he will have trouble putting together the finance and campaign machinery to carry him through the next six weeks, packed with 30 primaries that will probably settle the nomination fight.