Dole's opponents fail to do the decent thing

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Maybe another comprehensive thrashing at the polls this week will do the trick; but thus far Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes give no hint of it. To the frustration of the Republican hierarchy, and despite the entreaties of their friends, neither is showing the slightest readiness to abandon the quest for their party's presidential nomination.

Yesterday, Senator Bob Dole, who now even allows the odd smile to illuminate his gnarled features, was poised to sweep the seven states voting on "Super Tuesday", the biggest single day of the entire primary season thus far, when 363 delegates in all are at stake for the San Diego convention in mid-August.

In Texas and Florida, the two biggest prizes with 123 and 98 delegates respectively, but also in Mississippi, Tennessee, Oregon, Oklahoma and Louisiana, exit polls gave Mr Dole more than 50 per cent. Mr Buchanan was doing best in Louisiana with some 30 per cent while Mr Forbes was running second in Florida, but neither posed the remotest threat to the Kansas senator.

If wavering is to be detected, it is in the Forbes camp, shaken by an offer from the millionaire publisher's mentor and supply-side "guru" Jack Kemp to act as intermediary between Mr Forbes and Mr Dole. Mr Forbes squashed the initiative, but the incident has cut further into his dwindling credibility - prompting the House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, once sceptical of Mr Dole but now an avowed supporter, to warn Mr Forbes that his chances of turning his beloved flat tax into official party policy diminished with every day he remained in the race.

But if they retain some hope of convincing Mr Forbes to do the decent thing, Republican elders are under few illusions that they can persuade Mr Buchanan. If the publisher is on a self-financed mission to promote his economic policies, the former Reagan speech writer and television pundit, is on an ego trip.

Maybe, at San Diego, he might endorse a victorious Mr Dole - but until then, no chance. His words keyed to match the fanaticism of his audience, Mr Buchanan vows to carry the battle all the way, sometimes warning darkly that he might continue his challenge as an independent if his fiercely Christian pro-life views and "America First" philosophy are not reflected in the party platform.

If so, some Republican strategists tremble at the prospect of a repeat of 1992, when Mr Buchanan's speech at the Houston convention about the "cultural war" in the US only reinforced the party's image of intolerance, and helped send George Bush to defeat.

Even before yesterday's voting Mr Dole was already all but assured of the nomination, with 10 straight primary victories behind him. But poll matchups with Bill Clinton tell another story. A Washington Post/ABC TV survey yesterday put the President ahead by 56 per cent to 39 per cent. A third party candidacy, by Mr Buchanan or perhaps Ross Perot, the billionaire Texan who won 19 per cent of the vote in 1992, would equally seal Mr Dole's fate.

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