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Dole's wry wit leaves his rivals with the last laugh

The candidates for the Republican presidential nomination offer much to laugh about, most of it unintentional. The only one of the bunch who might have found alternative employment as a stand-up comedian, as someone who deliberately sets out to be funny, is Bob Dole.

The oldest candidate at 72, the senator from Kansas has a wry wit that goes down well among the elder participants at his campaign rallies but apparently fails to make a hit with a broader American television audience trained to absorb their humour sign-posted, slapstick and spoon-fed. The public image he projects is dour, grave and sullen.

This is in large part because the TV people, who presumably know their viewers, discard the Dole one-liners when they select their soundbites. His comic delivery, they have judged, belongs to a bygone age, owing more to Humphrey Bogart and Jack Benny than to Robin Williams and David Letterman. The body language is stiff and restrained. The gravelly voice never changes pitch. And the granite features were not intended by nature to crack into a smile.

On Thursday night he made a brief appearance before a group of supporters, average age 60, shortly before the start of a live TV debate with his rival candidates. His face, as he was introduced to the crowd, appeared to show the pre-fight strain. But when he spoke he was coolly ironic, the Second World War hero playing himself, toning down his bravery as he prepares for a frontal attack on enemy lines. ''I'm very excited,'' he said, sounding anything but. ''They tell me we're gonna have debate after a while.''

The tension dissolved. The audience laughed, relieved, confident now their man was made of the right stuff. ''My wife, Elizabeth, will be there at the debate,'' he went on. ''She tells me: 'Smile, smile, smile'.'' Again the audience laughed, savouring the self-deprecating indiscretion, the jibe at the stage-managing TV electioneering requires. ''Some of these questions are very serious,'' he continued. ''But I'll be smiling.''

During the debate itself the other candidates, notably Lamar Alexander and Pat Buchanan, came across as either artfully or painfully earnest. Only Mr Dole remained entirely himself, drily contemptuous of the contrived proceedings. When Mr Buchanan railed against him, he replied, ''Thanks for the endorsement, Pat.'' When Mr Buchanan barked, it was: ''Are you having a bad day, Pat?''

It is said of Mr Dole that he inspires, among his Senate peers, a rare affection. The people who see him close up clearly adore him. But that does not carry into American living-rooms, which is why the wise money is going on Bill Clinton, a TV showman for the Nineties who knows that what the public wants is bombast and ham, not dry, pithy one-liners.