Dole struggles as rivals scent blood

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Derry, New Hampshire

New Hampshire's Republican primary still has almost three weeks to go, but everyone knows that for Bob Dole, this campaign visit is critical. The reek of an impending political kill is in the air, and the favourite has come to smother it, if he possibly can.

The source of Mr Dole's problems is the sudden ascent through the Republican field of Steve Forbes, a multi-millionaire publisher who until recently seemed only a maverick player, posing no genuine threat.

But yesterday the second New Hampshire poll in a week put Mr Forbes substantially ahead of the Senator from Kansas. The poll, conducted for the Boston Globe and WBZ-TV, showed the challenger would receive 31 per cent of the vote if the primary were held today, to 22 per cent for the Senate majority leader. Other polls have placed Mr Forbes a threatening second.

A loss to Mr Forbes either here on 20 February, or eight days earlier in the Iowa caucuses, may cripple Mr Dole's candidacy. Until recently he seemed certain to garner the most delegates in the primary process, ensuring his nomination as the Republican candidate to challenge Bill Clinton for the presidency in November.

With defeat in New Hampshire now a distinct possibility, the main American political commentators have gathered to scrutinise Mr Dole and divine the extent of his crisis.

What they found was that his demeanour had changed: this is a candidate trying very hard indeed. The recent carping about the "liberal" media is gone, replaced by a controlled display of serenity.

The choreography of Mr Dole's passage on Wednesday through the populous south-east corner of the state was almost perfect. Unusually, his chief speech-writer was in tow to craft every syllable.

There was no repeat of last weekend's disaster here, when television cameras caught his aides hurriedly removing chairs from a rally, after only a smattering of supporters had showed up.

The only real glitch was the visit to a small brewery in Derry whose best-selling brand is Old Man Ale. Sensing impending disaster if the media were to make an association between the ale and Mr Dole's advancing years, his campaign staff cancelled the event at the last moment, only to be forced to reinstate it as quickly, when the Republican Governor of the state, Steve Merrill, made a protest.

On cue, as the owner of the brewery ushers him to the huge steel vat in which the "Old Man" is being fermented, Mr Dole delivers the line necessary to end the fuss. "Have you tasted the beer?" a reporter shouts. "Yes," the candidate replies. "It is young and fresh".

Earlier, Mr Dole visited Gordon's Top of the Tree bakery in neighbouring Londonderry, an appearance whose imagery was much less risky.

The sole product at Gordon's is apple pie, the very symbol of American homeliness and goodness. Standing before the bakery's ovens, Mr Gordon at his side, Mr Dole delivered a version of his stump speech not previously heard.

All reference to Mr Forbes and his other five main rivals in the race was gone. Instead, he set his sights on Mr Clinton, as if the nomination was already his. "The President talks right, but governs left," asserted Mr Dole.

At the heart of the speech was a reminiscence about his participation in the D-Day 50th anniversary celebrations in Europe last year.

Mr Dole was severely injured in the last days of the Second World War - his left hand is still maimed - and he is famously uncomfortable talking about it publicly. However, his advisers apparently have concluded that he must talk about it, and at length.

He told of the emotions and the tears of his fellow veterans and of visiting Italy, where he was wounded. "And I started to think that maybe there was one more mission, one more shot for my generation, one more opportunity to provide leadership to America, whose problems seem to get deeper and deeper every year," he said.

This, he told us, was the moment that he decided to try again for the presidency, even though he failed once before, in 1988, when he was beaten in this primary by George Bush.

It could be, though, that the voters of the New Hampshire are no more ready to put their faith in Mr Dole now than they were eight years ago.

Emerging from Thompson's Market, a rural grocery store in Hudson, a picturesque village close to the Massachussetts border, Mark Murray, manager of a chemical company, confesses to being depressed about all the Republican candidates, including Mr Dole. "I just can't be impressed by him. I sort of think you can't teach an old dog new tricks," he said.

More telling is the reaction of guests at a chamber of commerce dinner later in the evening in Nashua. Mr Dole rehearses his speech once more, to a middle-of-the-road Republican audience that ought to be his for the taking. But even here it is hard to find anyone not afflicted with doubt.

Christopher Conway, whose wife had earlier introduced the Senator to the meeting, whispers that he may vote for Mr Forbes. "I am just not convinced that Mr Dole is the right man for the job. But I'm tempted by Mr Forbes. Of all the campaign literature that arrives in the mail, there is only one kind I like to read, and it is from Forbes".

Likewise Linda Tomaselli, a Nashua lawyer. "I think that Mr Dole has had his chance already," she says. "He wasn't elected before because there is something missing."

She is about to carry on, when she abruptly bites her lip and flushes. Mr Dole is working the crowd and suddenly here he is, right before us. Quick as lightning, Ms Tomaselli smiles enthusiastically and she extends her hand.

News analysis, page 17