Florida poll win cheers Dole camp

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Bob Dole has pulled off a narrow victory in a keenly awaited straw poll of Florida Republicans. If history is any guide, it will reinforce his position as front-runner to win the party's nomination to challenge President Bill Clinton in next year's US presidential election.

The Senate majority leader captured 33 per cent of votes cast by 3,400 delegates, ahead of Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, with 26 per cent, and the former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander, with 23 per cent. The winners of the two such previous polls, Ronald Reagan in 1979 and George Bush in 1987, both went on to gain the nomination and then the White House.

Despite the unexpectedly strong performance of Mr Gramm and Mr Alexander, the Dole camp was relieved and delighted. "We won and that's what matters," his aides said. The result may also force some weaker and poorly financed candidates, such as Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Congressman Bob Dornan of California, to drop out.

Meanwhile the budget deadlock which has shut down much of the federal government for an unprecedented six days may be close to a solution. Republicans have tabled a new proposal, slightly softening their conditions for balancing the budget in seven years. Leon Panetta, the White House chief of staff, called it "a step in the right direction", as party leaders prepared to meet last night.

As the wrangling in Washington continued, Republicans won a landslide victory in the once solidly Democratic South when Mike Foster, a millionaire businessman, became only the second Republican Governor of Louisiana in 122 years. He defeated his black Democrat opponent, Cleo Fields, by 64 to 36 per cent.

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