Senator Bob Dole, uneasy front-runner for the Republican nomination, yesterday travelled to the key Presidential caucus state of Iowa to shore up a candidacy starting to be undermined by doubts about his age, and his inability to project an appealing vision to voters.
Crystallising the concerns was the reply that the 72-year-old Senate majority leader gave to President Clinton's State of the Union address on Tuesday. Mr Dole's flat performance delighted Democrats. It was universally panned by the media and greeted even by some of his staunchest supporters with the most damning of faint praise.
Mr Dole's aides insist that the limp, impersonal setting of his Senate office, from which he delivered the 12-minute response, would have handicapped any Republican who had to speak after the President. Mr Clinton exploited his gift for television to the full amid the pomp and splendour of a House of Representatives chamber bursting at the seams with dignitaries.
And the conservative, sometimes harsh language for which Mr Dole has been criticised was, say his supporters, aimed not at the country at large, but at the more partisan and activist Republicans who tend to vote in primaries and who are now being courted by his rivals.
Predictably, the fiercest pounding yesterday came from that quarter. According to Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor who is still struggling to make an impact in the campaign, Mr Dole's uninspiring performance proved that the Republicans needed "a visionary, not a legislative architect" to beat the Democratic incumbent.
Pat Buchanan, the conservative commentator and candidate, turned to baseball for a metaphor: "Our starting pitcher got shelled; it's time to bring some new kids from the minors." Phil Gramm, the Texas senator vying with Mr Buchanan for the conservative vote, declared flatly that "Bob Dole cannot and will not beat Bill Clinton".
In the heat of the campaign, such complaints are worth far less than face value. But the evidence from the polls, and from Mr Dole's own tepid reception on the campaign trail, is that a truism of Republican primary politics - the early favourite always wins - may come under serious threat in 1996.
In Iowa, which votes on 12 February, and in New Hampshire, where the first full-scale primary takes place eight days later, the magazine publisher Steve Forbes has halved Mr Dole's once majestic lead. In Arizona, voting on 27 February, Mr Forbes has a solid lead, according to one poll, and in Delaware, another early primary state, the two are running neck and neck. Thereafter the campaign moves south, to states where Mr Gramm and Mr Alexander should do better.
Out in the field, Mr Dole, 36 years in Congress and the ultimate Washington insider, has by far the best organisation. Five hundred people turned out at one New Hampshire rally, at which he was accompanied by a platoon of the senators and governors who have endorsed him. But his speech set nobody alight, and four-fifths of the crowd turned out to have been bused in from Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Disenchantment with Mr Dole, meanwhile, is starting to rekindle the impossible dream of a candidacy by General Colin Powell, the former US military chief. In November General Powell firmly closed the door to a 1996 candidacy. But some Republicans cling to the hope that a bloody and inconclusive battle among the current field might leave him open to entreaty. On Wednesday night, he was the star attraction at a Republican "Road to the White House" dinner which raised a record $16m (pounds 10.4m) for party coffers. Guests filed past General Powell's table as if he were royalty.
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