Dole trapped in a mire of his own making

Even Whitewater fails to lift Republican fortunes, Rupert Cornwell reports
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The Independent Online
Washington - The Republican convention is still more than a month away, but anxious advisers to Bob Dole are weighing a number of moves, including an accelerated choice of vice-presidential running mate or a new economic plan, to breathe life into a campaign that for weeks has been going nowhere.

The past fortnight in particular should have been a bonanza for the challenger, with the media spotlight fixed on theWhitewater trial in Arkansas and the FBI files controversy in Washington - both issues which feed into the Clinton "character" issue, arguably the single strongest Republican card.

But Mr Dole has trumped both with a disaster of his own making. Instead of being forced to choose between gross incompetence and criminal skulduggery as explanation for its 1993 request for files on leading Republicans, the White House has gleefully watched headline after headline ridiculing its opponent for his refusal to accept that tobacco is addictive.

The trouble began during avisit by Mr Dole to the tobacco state of Kentucky, and grewwhen he lashed out at alleged media bias during a nationally televised interview - unwittingly resurrecting the famous "mean" Bob Dole of campaigns past - under questioning from one of the most popular television presenters in the country, NBC's Katie Couric.

Yet more remarkably, Mr Dole declined chance after chance to close the issue, even suggesting that milk, too, could be harmful. Not surprisingly, after a flicker of a recovery in mid-June, he remains 15 points or more behind President Clinton in most polls.

Not that Mr Clinton's Whitewater problems have vanished; yesterday - for the second time this year - he was in the undignified position of giving videotaped testimony from the White House in the trial of two Arkansas bankers charged with illegally channelling $13,000 (pounds 8,500) to Mr Clinton's 1990 gubernatorial re-election campaign, while a Whitewater expert claimed this weekend that investigators may be "heading towards" the President himself.

Writing in the New Yorker, James Stewart, author of the best-selling Whitewater bookBlood Sport, says that Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor, considered naming Mr Clinton an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the recent trial which ended in the fraud convictions of his former business partners Bill and Susan McDougal.

But speaking with Mr Stewart, Mr Starr indicated it was most unlikely any charges would be brought against either Mr Clinton or his wife before the November election. Mr Clinton's approval rating, meanwhile, remains around 55 per cent. Not once in 40 years has a sitting president with such ratings at this stage in an election year been defeated.

Two other factors make Mr Dole's task even more daunting. The first is his party's split over abortion, which looks even more likely to explode at San Diego after the candidate last week suggested he might choose a pro-choice running mate - at the very moment that Republicans in Texas and in 10 other states were packing their convention delegations with foes of abortion.

The second, perhaps evenmore formidable factor, is the health of the economy. Mr Clinton leapt on June's drop in unemployment to hail "the strongest economy in a generation", and second-quarter GDP growth, to be announced in late July, could reach 4 per cent, analysts say. If so, Mr Dole's room for attacking the President on the issue of most concern to voters could be minimal. Third-quarter GDP figures are not due until the eve of the election, probably too late to make much difference.

Even the expected candidacy of Ross Perot as leader of his new Reform party may not help, since the Texas businessman draws support equally from Democrats and Republicans. Instead, the Dole camp hopes the Reform party nominates Mr Richard Lamm, a former governor of Colorado, as its candidate. Mr Lamm has announced he will stand in the party's nominating convention in August. As he is a former Democrat, he would probably take more votes from Mr Clinton than from Mr Dole.