Hopefuls line up early in presidential stakes: Rupert Cornwell in Washington runs a rule over Republicans who have a headstart in the 1996 contest

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The Independent Online
MAYBE it's a growing conviction that Bill Clinton is beatable. Maybe it's just the fund-raising needs imposed by a drastically compressed primary season. But 22 months before formal hostilities open with the Iowa caucuses, the field of Republican presidential contenders for 1996 is already taking shape.

A posse of Republican politicians is already doing the rounds in Iowa and New Hampshire, site of the first primary proper and graveyard of so many White House aspirations. And every one has the same goal: the organisational head-start so vital in 1996.

One simple fact has concentrated minds - the decision of California, with more convention delegates than any state, to move its primary from an irrelevant June to late March. All therefore will be settled in the six or so weeks after Iowa's straw poll in mid-February. The minimum war chest for this virtual national primary is reckoned at dollars 30m ( pounds 20m). For up to a dozen Republicans, this is no deterrent.

If previous campaign experience were the criterion, Bob Dole would have the nomination in his pocket. Gerald Ford's vice-presidential candidate in 1976, he made White House bids of his own in 1980 and 1988. As Senate minority leader, he is de facto leader of his party. He has name recognition, access to money and - judging by the sheer number of his forays into Iowa and New Hampshire - undiminished energy and ambition.

The problem is his age. Come Inauguration Day 1997, the senior senator from Kansas would be 73, four years older than even Ronald Reagan when he became President in January 1981. Many suspect Mr Dole may ultimately prefer the role of kingmaker rather than king, or (less credibly) indicate he would seek office for one term only.

The Senate contains at least one other near-certain entrant, Phil Gramm of Texas. For him too, money is no problem. He has a dollars 7m surplus on hand from two Senate campaigns. His political base is Texas, third-ranking state in terms of delegates behind California and New York. Mr Gramm is right-wing on economic and social policy. But there is a harsh, mean-spirited, flavour to his politics. As a public speaker he is a disaster.

Mr Dole and Mr Gramm aside, the most visible contenders come from the last Republican administration. The former housing secretary Jack Kemp ran against his subsequent boss, George Bush, in 1988, and plans another bid in 1996. His involvement in social policy, his 'bleeding-heart conservatism', appeal to moderates and potential Democratic cross-overs. If domestic reform is still the focus two years hence, he might be the most viable candidate.

Should Bill Clinton be floundering in foreign crises though, two of Mr Bush's national-security stalwarts would be better placed. The former defence secretary Dick Cheney has taken the traditional first step of forming his own political-action committee and more or less admits he will run. He is conservative Republicanism's safest pair of hands. His foreign-policy toughness and expertise are unquestioned. Less so is his interest in America's domestic woes.

Much the same goes for former secretary of state James Baker, who is also putting out feelers. He has an equal reputation, but not the party constituency. An outsider from the Bush cabinet stable is the former education secretary Lamar Alexander, admired by insiders but lacking name recognition.

For Dan Quayle name recognition is not a problem. But his 1996 intentions are still a mystery. Mr Quayle has an abundant following among grass-roots conservatives and the religious right. Whether he is equal to the top job however, is as arguable now as it used to be whenever President Bush's health became a concern. Mr Quayle is young, too. Many think a run for the Indiana governorship in 1996 would provide the gravitas for a White House bid in 2000.

Some sitting governors are already studying their options. First on anyone's list must be Pete Wilson of California, assuming he is re-elected this autumn. The fashionable bet, however, is Carroll Campbell of South Carolina, personification of enlightened conservatism in power. But he is not well known nationally, and does the US want yet another southern governor in the White House? A couple of dark horses are William Weld of Massachusetts (too liberal probably for the primaries but an attractive vice-presidential option) and the imaginative conservative Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin.

Finally, there are a few potential spoilers, and one giant unknown quantity. Among the former are Pat Buchanan, the hard-right scourge of George Bush in the 1992 primaries, and Robert Dornan, the ferociously partisan Congressman from Orange County California who makes Rush Limbaugh look moderate.

Most tantalising though is the unknown quantity. His name is Colin Powell. Until last year he was the most influential Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in memory. No one knows his plans, or indeed, if he's a Republican at all. But everyone has a label for him - the 'black Eisenhower'.