Dole urges Perot to stay out of race

THE US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

With the 1996 Republican presidential nomination now secure, Bob Dole yesterday embarked on the far tougher campaign to defeat Bill Clinton in the general election in November, a task which may be still further complicated by a repeat White House run by Ross Perot.

After yet another Tuesday primary sweep, this time in the old industrial Midwest, the 72-year-old Senate majority leader only briefly savoured the prize that had eluded him for two decades, before plunging back into his preferred milieu of Washington, featuring a White House meeting with his future opponent, in search of a balanced budget agreement between the Republican Congress and the White House.

Washington, indeed, is where the next phase of the election campaign will unfold, in complicated jousting over measures that include the budget, welfare and health-care reform, and proposed tax cuts for families with children. Mr Dole will portray himself as a "common sense conservative" who could get things done, were it not for vetoes by Mr Clinton.

The contest will be fascinating. The two men may be prime specimens of that reviled breed the "Washington insider". But both are adroit politicians, and never before has an election been fought between an incumbent President and a Senate Majority leader of the other party.

Mr Dole's triumphs in the "Rust Belt" were comprehensive. In Ohio and Illinois he routed his only serious remaining challenger, the right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan, by a margin of three to one. In Michigan and Wisconsin Mr Buchanan did better, capturing one-third of the vote, but in both states the Kansas Senator topped 50 per cent.

Though delegate tallies are notoriously inexact, according to CNN Mr Dole now has 1,000, four more than the 996 needed for an overall majority at the convention. That compares to 100 for Mr Buchanan whose aim now is not to unseat Mr Dole, a mathematical impossibility, but to to secure a speaking spot at the convention and force his populist pro-life and "America First" views into the party platform.

But Mr Buchanan is merely a nuisance. A greater danger lies in another independent run by Mr Perot, the unpredictable billionaire from Dallas, which may guarantee victory for Mr Clinton, just as in 1992, when the on-off-on candidacy of Mr Perot drove the final nail into George Bush's coffin.

Although the polls show Mr Dole is at present running 10 points or more behind Mr Clinton, the electoral college arithmetic is less bleak, with the South, the South-west, the plains and Rocky Mountain states solidly Republican - in a two-way contest.

A Perot run, however, would change everything. His support may be less than the 19 per cent he won in 1992, but Perot voters are drawn overwhelmingly from Republican ranks, and even modest defections could cost Mr Dole states that he would otherwise win in November.

"Ross, we are the reform party, what else do you want?" Mr Dole said yesterday, almost pleading with the Texan to stay out of the race. But Perot-watchers are convinced their man cannot resist another run, either as the candidate of the Reform Party, which he is trying to launch across the country, or as an independent.

And the music from Dallas is uncannily like 1992, when Mr Perot portrayed himself as a simple patriot heeding his countrymen's yearning for a selfless outsider to step in and "fix up the mess" in Washington.

He would run "if that's what members of this [Reform] party want," he told a Texas radio station this week. "I can't just sit here and watch everything deteriorate."

Tomorrow, moreover, Mr Perot is due to appear on CNN's Larry King Show, the same platform from which he announced his candidacy in February 1992.

Apart from deterring a third-party challenge, Mr Dole must also choose a running mate. Now that General Colin Powell, Mr Dole's preferred choice, has again virtually ruled himself out, the Midwest once more could hold the key. High on the Dole vice-presidential list are Governors John Engler of Michigan and George Voinovich of Ohio. Either could tip the balance in November in a crucial swing state which the Republicans must win in order to regain the White House.

n Little Rock, Arkansas (AP) - A federal judge yesterday directed defence lawyers in the Whitewater trial to take President Clinton's testimony by videotape. Ordering him to travel to Little Rock would be unduly burdensome on his official duties, the judge said. The judge rejected Mr Clinton's request that he be given the questions in advance. He said lawyers may ask the President whatever they like about allegations raised during the trial.

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