Dole shapes up for knock-out blow

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The Independent Online


Bob Dole, the Republicans' rediscovered front-runner, has a chance today of clinching, in practice if not in statistical certainty, the party's 1996 presidential nomination with a crushing show of strength in eight primaries scattered across New England, the South and the Rocky Mountain state of Colorado.

In all, 226 delegates are at stake, including 42 in Georgia, 37 in Massachusetts and 27 in Colorado - only a modest fraction of the 996 needed for outright victory at the San Diego convention. But a sweep or near-sweep by Mr Dole, immediately after his surprisingly clear-cut triumph in South Carolina at the weekend, would create a mood of "bandwagon" inevitability around his candidacy that would surely sweep him to final victory.

In all eight states (and in New York, which votes on Thursday) polls put the Senate majority leader ahead, albeit by varying margins. The closest battles could come in Georgia, where the conservative populist Pat Buchanan is making a sustained effort, and in Colorado and Maine, traditionally quirky states where Steve Forbes, the multi-millionaire publisher, could do well.

The wind, though, is unarguably in Mr Dole's sails, speeded by an endorsement yesterday from Newt Gingrich, the House Speaker, as he cast an early absentee ballot in his home state of Georgia, and by predictions from a host of party notables, including Mr Dole's former rival for the nomination, the Texas Senator Phil Gramm, that the race was all but over.

In this particular political year of course, bold words have had a habit of being instantly eaten, but the entire Dole campaign seems suddenly to have acquired a surer touch. His opponents meanwhile make scant headway. An increasingly strident Mr Buchanan seems to have hit a ceiling of support between 25 to 30 per cent while - barring a Georgia miracle - the campaign of the former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander looks to be on its last legs.

Perhaps wisely, too, Mr Dole avoided a candidates' television debate in Atlanta on Sunday evening. When he did the same thing in Arizona a week ago, the tactic backfired, but this time Messrs Buchanan, Alexander and Forbes mostly squabbled among themselves, leaving the biggest headlines to be captured by the uninvited fringe candidate Alan Keyes, arrested and handcuffed by police as he attempted to force his way into the room where the debate was being held.

For Mr Dole, the gathering sense of inevitability has not come a moment too soon. Front-runner he may be, but within a week or so he will hit the $37m (pounds 24.6m) primary spending ceiling for candidates like him who accept federal matching funds. Not that donations are not rolling in - simply that they cannot be spent on the advertising blitzes essential in these multi-primary weeks where it is physically impossible to campaign seriously in person in each state.

Whatever it leaves in terms of quality, 1996 has already smashed all financial records. The Republican candidates have spent $140m, led by Mr Dole and Mr Forbes with $30m or more apiece, and $20m by Mr Gramm, who withdrew after the Iowa caucuses three weeks ago. At the same stage in 1992, Mr Buchanan and the then president, George Bush, had spent a combined $23m.

Yesterday, meanwhile, Mr Dole got a 14-delegate boost from Puerto Rico, where he won a landslide victory over Mr Buchanan. Although it is not formally part of the US and does not vote in presidential elections, it does send delegates to the conventions. Its government had urged inhabitants to reject Mr Buchanan, celebrated for referring to Hispanic immigrants to the US as "truckloads of Joses".