Dole the veteran makes final bid for White House

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The Independent Online

in Washington

Half a century after he was wounded and almost killed in the Second World War, Senate majority leader Bob Dole yesterday returned to his native Kansas formally to launch his third, his most promising, and quite certainly his last bid for the one political prize that has eluded him - the US presidency.

"Tempered by adversity, seasoned by experience, mindful of the world as it is yet confident it can be made better, I declare my candidacy for President of the United States," Mr Dole declared in the state capital of Topeka, where he won his first elective office as a state legislator in 1951.

Because of bad weather the occasion was moved to an indoor sports arena, but that did not temper the boisterous enthusiasm of his supporters. As the 71-year-old Mr Dole finished his speech, a cascade of red, white and blue balloons tumbled from the ceiling, as if his speech were not a mere declaration of candidacy, but the acceptance of a nomination already won.

And if the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego were held tomorrow, such undoubtedly would be the case, if Mr Dole's huge lead in the polls is any indication. A new survey by CNN yesterday showed him ahead of his closest rival, Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, by 46 to 13 per cent, with a mere 8 per cent of Republican voters opting for the conservative commentator, Pat Buchanan, and 4 per cent for Governor Pete Wilson of California, who could yet prove his most dangerous opponent.

Whatever happens, Mr Dole will be hard to stop. He can raise funds a- plenty. In the key initial contests of Iowa and New Hampshire, where he has high name recognition and strong organisations in place already, he looks virtually unbeatable; indeed, victories there followed by wins in other early primaries in big industrial states could settle matters within a month.

His campaign will be built on the classic Midwestern conservatism that nurtured him, promising smaller ,yet still caring, government, more power to the states, fewer taxes and a balanced budget. By contemporary Republican standards, Mr Dole is a moderate - indeed a man once famous for a mean spirit and sharp tongue now seems the mellowest, most reasonable of elder statesmen when set alongside Newt Gingrich and the Speaker's ideologically driven followers.

Therein however lies Mr Dole's gamble. By advertising his experience and his military heroism in Italy in 1945, he deliberately draws a contrast with President Bill Clinton, the babyboomer who wriggled out of military service in Vietnam. But he also advertises his age. In January 1997, he would be 73, the oldest man ever inaugurated president and six months older than Ronald Reagan when he started his second term in 1985.

In purely party terms moreover, he must shift uncomfortably far to the right - at least until the convention, where delegates are more conservative than rank-and-file Republican voters, is over. Notoriously, Mr Dole is no great fan of the Contract with America, but "change" is perforce now his watchword too. To rein in government, he said yesterday, "We must have a President who is more than a clever apologist for the status quo. In 1992, Bill Clinton ran as the candidate of change. In 1996, he will seek re-election as a candidate pledged to prevent change at all costs."

His biggest handicap however is likely to be his 27 years in the Senate. Master legislator and dealmaker he may be, but political visionary he is not. Bob Dole indeed is perfect embodiment of the "Washington insider" so disliked by voters. Nor is the Senate a rich breeding ground for presidents.

Sooner or later, the old joke runs, every senator wakes up, looks in the mirror and sees a future president. But in American history only three times has a sitting senator been elected to the White House, the last of them John Kennedy in 1960. Messrs Carter, Reagan and Clinton by contrast were former or sitting governors when they won the presidency.