Dole's long ride to nowhere

Does he know he's lost?
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It Was was National Depression Screening Day in America on Thursday. In Cincinnati the occasion was marked by a psychologist who set up a stand in the lobby of a downtown hotel and handed out self-help pamphlets with titles like "Why don't I feel good?" and "Do your problems sometimes seem larger than life?"

By pure coincidence the hotel looked out on to a square where, on the very same day, Bob Dole was holding an election rally. The psychologist would have been proud of him. The Republican presidential candidate is having a dismal election campaign. Lagging behind President Clinton in the polls by an ominously consistent 20 percentage points, way behind him in most states, the old soldier bore the added humiliation on Tuesday of learning that Bruce Springsteen had issued a statement forbidding him from playing Born in the USA on the campaign trail.

No serious political observer is in any doubt that the outcome of the 5 November polls has acquired, for Mr Dole, a terrible inevitability. But Mr Dole, who after 36 years in the US Congress is as serious a political observer as any, is not allowing his problems to get the better of him. He is not abandoning himself to despair. He is accentuating the positive, dwelling on happy thoughts, seeking out the bright side of life.

For a man who knows that his campaign is going nowhere but has decided he might as well enjoy the ride, Cincinnati - the only big American city where George Bush won an absolute majority in 1992 - was a good place to begin. From there, following a cheerfully inconsequential rally, he set off on a bus tour of south-west Ohio, one of the few remaining corners of America where Mr Dole enjoys rock-solid Republican loyalty.

Mr Dole's bus, "the American Dream Machine", made its first stop in Lebanon, a quaint, clean little town famous in Ohio for its 25 antique shops. As Mr Dole, 73, alighted from his bus, he may have wondered for one happy moment whether he had been transported back to his boyhood in Russell, Kansas. Three hundred wholesome Midwestern faces smiled and cheered; a brass band in chocolate box soldier outfits, 80 teenagers strong, played a breezy martial tune; and a sheriff in a grey cowboy hat and matching moustache stood in the middle of the main street, casting a stern paternal eye over the unusually exuberant procedings.

Over the Golden Lamb Hotel, where Charles Dickens and Mark Twain slept, there fluttered a large Stars and Stripes and the Village Ice Cream Parlour, next door to Oh Suzanna Antiques, was decked with patriotic bunting. In a move of the type described by the shrewd hands on the Clinton campaign team as "a planned spontaneous stop", Mr Dole stepped into the ice-cream parlour - another trip down memory lane, for as a boy Mr Dole used to work in such a place. Grinning with genuine delight as he poured himself a thick chocolate milk shake from a silver container into a glass, he recalled, "I used to make them this way for myself - not the customers."

Outside in the crowd waiting for a glimpse of Lebanon's presidential candidate was Elmer Downing, a small, white-haired man of 72 who said he had served in the same army division as Mr Dole - the 75th Infantry - in the Second World War. What did he like about his fellow veteran? "He's a man of his word. He's a man you can trust. He's not a polished politician," Mr Downing said. But could he win? Mr Downing smiled. "I don't think so. Maybe he's a little too old to do that job."

Whereupon Mr Dole, looking tanned and younger than Mr Downing, emerged from the ice-cream shop. "Look, he's all made up," a voice in the crowd piped up. "No, he's been under a sun lamp," someone replied. "Well," the first voice said, "reckon he's gotta do something..."

These were his core supporters speaking, faithful souls who were going to vote for him even though they knew that they were backing a loser, that the first rule of electoral success in America - as elsewhere - is to look like a winner.

Mr Dole, addressing the crowd for all of four minutes, went though his paces, repeating the sound bites that had stuck in Mr Downing's mind. "This election is all about trust"; "Bob Dole is a man of his word." He sounded cheerful enough, for he felt, he said, at home. But he knows the "trust" issue will not wash with the broad electorate out there, 60 per cent of whom have said in the polls that while they have little respect for Mr Clinton's character, they will still give him their vote.

In search of more pure Ohio hearts, Mr Dole abandoned the Jimmy Stewart film-set of Lebanon and made his way through rolling countryside to the small farming community of Bloomingburg. A stage had been erected next to a large barn. Pigs grunted in a muddy pen and horses grazed in the fields. Light was fading and it was chilly, but a crowd of 500 had gathered.

They were like children: "Bob Dole!" rose the chant. "All the way!" came the response. "Bob Dole!" "All the way!" A warm-up speaker chronicled Bill Clinton's iniquities, contrasting each one, deliberate as a kindergarten teacher, with the virtues of Mr Dole. The crowd booed and cheered, booed and cheered, on cue.

Mr Dole was in his element. "This is the real America!" he enthused. "This is where the real people are." In his dreams, maybe. The real people, the voters who count, are cynical urban dwellers who do not trust any politicians and who scoff at the notion of selecting a presidential candidate on the strength of his moral rectitude. It is the economy that counts, and during the past four years it has gone well. Americans want a good manager to keep things that way and if, like Mr Clinton, the candidate has youth on his side and a touch of the swagger that Hollywood teaches Americans to expect of a president, so much the better.

Mr Dole understands all this. He understands it so well that he is beyond pain. In Bloomingburg, at the end of a long day, he was in good voice, strong, sunny of disposition. Commentators have expressed surprise that the snarling Bob Dole of old, the one whose jibes at George Bush cost him his party's presidential nomination in 1988, has failed to emerge in this campaign. What these commentators do not see is that the mean streak only shows in a candidate who is on edge, who feels he can win and believes he has a great deal to lose.

Mr Dole has the serenity today of a man who knows he has already lost. On Thursday, between milk-shake slurps in Lebanon, a reporter asked him why he was spending so much of his campaign time in a part of the country which was electorally sewn up. "We're solidifying our base," he replied, then added, "You know what Goldwater used to say: you go hunting where the ducks are."

Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate who lost by a landslide to Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

A Small Guide to Big Losers

The Republican Party candidate whose fate Bob Dole hopes to avoid is Barry Goldwater (pictured right,top), who lost by 16 million votes to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. John F Kennedy had been assassinated less than a year earlier; the electorate also feared that the very right-wing Goldwater might bomb Moscow.

Since the Second World War, however, Democratic candidates have been on the receiving end of the most crushing electoral defeats. George McGovern (right) lost by 18 million votes to Richard Nixon in 1972, coming out ahead only in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, and Walter Mondale was a no-hoper during Ronald Reagan's re- election campaign in 1984, going down by 17 million votes. After the 1972 defeat, McGovern has said, he was genuinely comforted by a letter from Goldwater which told him: "Dear George, if you must lose, lose big."