Dole sinks - as Clinton swoops

Bewildered, bitter and facing defeat
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The Independent Online
For the neutral observer, it is not so much politics as tragedy. An old man who has devoted his life to public service, one of the most admired and effective legislators of the century, seems in the last campaign of his life to be sinking, bitter and uncomprehending, towards self-inflicted disaster.

Such, eight days before the US election, is the state of the candidacy of Bob Dole, former Majority leader of the United States Senate but, at the age of 73, facing a defeat that may join those of George McGovern or Walter Mondale in 1972 and 1984, in the annals of American presidential landslides.

"Where's the outrage?" Mr Dole implored audiences in Texas last week before, as is his rhetorical wont, repeating a phrase three times: Wake up America. Wake up America. Wake up America." Yesterday he was again expressing his bewilderment - this time in California, the state on which he is gambling everything, despite polls putting him 20 points behind: "Confess your mistakes," he urged Mr Clinton, "You ought to beg for mercy."

Yet, with barely a week of the campaign left, the populace continues to slumber, and if anyone should be pleading for a little mercy, it is Mr Dole. Instead, the "mean" Bob Dole of failed campaigns past is re-emerging, sharp-tongued and dark-tempered, less statesman than hatchetman.

Like George Bush in 1992 and almost every other politician who has ever felt hard done by, he lashes out in frustration at the media: "Don't let the media steal the election ... the country belongs to the people, not the New York Times."

To nobody's surprise, the New York Times formally endorsed Mr Clinton yesterday, amid new polls showing the President's lead anywhere between 13 and 20 points nationally. The choice, added the newspaper, had "not been difficult", given Mr Dole's "halting campaign".

And it is largely thanks to press investigation of Whitewater, sundry other White House scandals, and now the campaign finance excesses of the Democratic party, that Mr Dole has the ammunition he has. Nor have major newspapers or television picked up allegations in the New York Daily News that the Republican candidate had a long extra-marital affair that started in 1968, three years before he was divorced from his first wife, Phyllis.

But for a man who has attempted to make personal probity and trustworthiness the watchword of his campaign, the sensation of tabloid mud around his ankles must be unpleasant indeed: "You're worse than they are," he snapped at a reporter last week.

Pressure and desperation meanwhile have seen the Dole syntax, never watertight at the best of times, come asunder at the seams. "Mr Dole appeared to be referring to ...," is almost a stock phrase, as reporters struggle to determine what he was actually talking about.

The spectacle distresses friends and allies. "I'm saddened by what this loss will do to him. I believe he will be bitter. He thought the presidency was a reward system and that he was next in line for the ring," said Don Sipple, a former top Dole adviser.

Perhaps Mr Dole's real failing has been to replace strategy with tactics. Never has he stuck to a grand design. First he floated a 15 per cent tax cut proposal, which did not work. Then he chose Jack Kemp as running mate. That changed nothing. Next he attacked Mr Clinton's character and ethics. These too left the country cold.

And so to the Ross Perot fiasco. "I beg you, get out of this race," Mr Kemp pleaded again yesterday, three days after he had publicly rebuffed a Dole emissary making the same request. The maneouvre was entirely normal for a Senate majority leader seeking to cut a deal to win a majority on a crucial floor amendment. For a Presidential candidate however, it was inviting humiliation.

Instead the previously ignored Mr Perot has been catapulted back to the headlines. He is now making the arguments against Mr Clinton in the way Mr Dole should.