Under sleet and snow, New York Republicans voted yesterday in a primary that seemed set to hand another win to Senator Bob Dole and put him all but beyond the reach of his remaining rivals for his party's presidential nomination.
The only suspense was provided by Steve Forbes, who appeared at the last moment at least to be narrowing Mr Dole's lead. A victory by Mr Forbes would be a stunning upset.
New York is the biggest prize in the primary process so far, with 93 delegates on offer for the party's nominating convention in August. If Mr Dole snares them, his lead in numbers of delegates over Mr Forbes and his only other serious rival, Pat Buchanan, would make him well-nigh invincible.
"I think we will be the state that puts Senator Dole over the top," the Governor of New York, George Pataki, said. Only California and Texas will send more delegates to the convention in San Diego.
Of the three candidates, only Mr Forbes was still in the Empire State yesterday, apparently glimpsing the miracle of an eleventh-hour breakthrough. A final daily tracking poll for the New York Post showed Mr Dole's lead cut from 48.4 per cent to 46 per cent, while Mr Forbes had jumped from 18.7 per cent to 24.2 per cent.
Mr Buchanan appeared to be losing ground in the state and registered only 13.6 per cent in the New York Post poll.
The race has been overshadowed by controversy created by the state party's attempts to preserve rules that made it almost impossible for any candidate other than Mr Dole to make on to the ballot sheets.
With help from the courts, Mr Forbes was able to qualify in all 31 of the state's congressional districts, while Mr Buchanan was standing in only 23. State-wide, therefore, the primary amounted to a first head-to- head Dole-Forbes contest.
So confident was Mr Dole that he had left yesterday to campaign in Florida, which votes on Tuesday. In Miami, the senator joked: "I feel good about New York, except it snowed up there. If it snows here, we're in trouble."
Mr Forbes received a boost on Wednesday, when he was endorsed by Jack Kemp, a former pro-football star and Bush cabinet member. But Mr Kemp, whose main interest in Mr Forbes is his advocacy of a flat tax, may have jumped in too late. "It's like grabbing the helm of the Titanic after it's hit the ice," scoffed William Powers, the state party chairman.
Mr Forbes also poured money into the state in the closing hours of the campaign, with intensive advertising, including a 30-minute block of primetime on a New York City television station. Chastising Mr Dole for refusing to take part in recent television debates, Mr Forbes offered to pay for his plane fare to return to New York to debate with him on the half-hour show.
The magazine magnate was meanwhile due to stage a "victory party" in a Manhattan hotel yesterday evening.
The event, aides said, would mark his success in getting on the ballot across the state, even if the day's voting did not give him victory.
Mr Buchanan continued to defy party calls on him to retire from the race and help restore party unity. He promised supporters that he would "fight until Hell freezes over - and then fight on the ice".
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