Dole resigned to a real contest

The phoney presidential war is over, writes Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online
Washington - Shortly after 3pm yesterday afternoon in a packed and not a little tearful Senate Press Gallery, the US presidential election campaign truly began. Not with a thunderous declaration of candidacy, or the unveiling of a momentous policy platform. But with a resignation.

Bob Dole was stepping down not only as majority leader, but as a very member of the Senate. The "phoney war" along Pennsylvania Avenue, between a Democratic President in the White House and a Republican nominee presumptive firing salvoes from the Senate floor, was over. To the relief of Republicans across the land and of a political press corps bored out of its mind - though doubtless not of Mr Clinton who has won the "phoney war" hands down - the real contest is now to start. And if the cameo appearance by Mr Dole yesterday is any indication, it could yet be a cracker.

For once, words were his ally, not his foe. The stumbling, semi-incoherent candidate of the primary season had vanished. Maybe he has at last found a decent speechwriter. Or maybe, as so often with Bob Dole, it takes adversity to bring out the best in him. And of adversity there is plenty. A mile behind in the polls, short of money and with rebellion simmering among the erstwhile faithful, even he must have had doubts about the wisdom of the White House enterprise.

Yesterday however, in leaving an institution he has graced and loved for more than a quarter of a century, he found both his tongue and his heart. They said Bob Dole would either be in the White House or his coffin before he surrendered the post of majority leader.

But the old warrior knew it was time to go, acknowledging the impossibility of simultaneously running the business of the Senate and engaging in the most gruelling and merciless election on earth. "You don't lay claim to the office you hold," he said wryly. "It lays claim to you. My time to leave this office has come, and I will seek the Presidency with nothing to fall back on, and nowhere to go but the White House, or home."

By 11 June at the latest, "I will forego the privileges not only of the office of majority leader but of the United States Senate as well . . . And I will then stand before you without office or authority, a private citizen, a Kansan, an American, just a man." Handkerchiefs dabbed surreptitiously at moist eyes, even Democratic eyes, and Republican cheers could not conceal the cracking of Bob Dole's voice as he announced the moment of parting. But, the more realistic muttered under their breath, not a moment too soon.

The last six weeks, since he statistically clinched the Republican nomination, have been a disaster. On the Senate floor he has been outfoxed by a Democratic minority exploiting to the hilt its powers of filibuster to tie the master legislator in knots. Mr Clinton has stolen the high ground of the debate (not to mention Republican issues). His opponent has been entangled in a legislative drift-net, involving such technicalities as a 4.3 cent reduction in petrol taxes, adjustments to the minimum wage and incomprehensible modifications in the labour laws.

Dole was creature of an unpopular Congress, all too easily portrayed as the ideological twin of the abrasive, increasingly detested Newt Gingrich. Now at one bound he is free, a full-time candidate able to take his message of tax cuts and less government to the people, without keeping one eye fixed on the traps set on Capitol Hill.

To be sure he is taking risks. He has to prove that yesterday's burst of oratory was no flash in the pan; if he reverts to his lacklustre primary season self, a liberated Dole will still be a doomed Dole. More prosaically, he is strapped for cash, with but $2m legally left to spend before mid-August's nominating convention in San Diego.

He must find a credible economic policy. He must shed his association with the dogmatic right, yet somehow find an accommodation with Pat Buchanan and his spear carriers on the religious right, and sort out his party's potentially fatal tangle over abortion. He must find a vice-presidential running mate to capture the country's imagination - but the person who could best do this, General Colin Powell, is adamant he will not.

Above all, he must somehow explain to Americans why they should not give Bill Clinton a second term, and instead entrust the country to a dour 72-year-old, a pragmatist but not a visionary, a war hero but one from an age whose relevance to America on the edge of the 21st century is hard to divine. In those terms, it seems mission impossible. Put another way though, Mr Dole yesterday had nothing left to lose.