Lacklustre Dole fuels Republican poll jitters

A month after Bob Dole clinched the Republican nomination in record time, dismal poll ratings and an uncharacteristically clumsy performance as Senate majority leader are kindling party fears that he may lead it to a massive defeat in November which could even cost it control of Congress.

The second half of April was when Mr Dole was supposed to start the march to the White House, reinvigorated after the Easter recess and back in his natural habitat on Capitol Hill. Instead he has seen President Clinton widen his lead to 15 points or more and, far from using his Senate perch to define his policies, he has merely managed to expose Republican divisions on a host of major issues in the autumn campaign.

Even before the primaries, Mr Dole had decided he would be better served staying on as majority leader, rather than step aside to concentrate on the campaign. Better free air-time on the Senate floor, where he controlled the legislative agenda, he reasoned, than paid air time - especially when he was virtually out of money until the summer conventions.

Thus far, alas, the gamble has backfired miserably. On health care, Mr Dole last week manoeuvred himself into seeming to be trying to torpedo a modest but politically popular Bill that would expand insurance coverage for people who changed jobs or who suffered from pre-existing medical conditions. That measure now seems likely to go through, but only thanks to the defection of five Senate Republicans.

Much the same happened with a Bill to increase the minimum wage, pressed by Democrats to underline their concern for the worst-off. But Mr Dole resisted, only to be, in his words, "blindsided" by a group of House Republicans who support the proposed rise from $4.25 (pounds 2.81) to $5.15 (pounds 3.41) an hour. Now the increase will almost certainly be be voted upon, and approved - probably this week.

Mr Dole's basic problem, as he seeks metamorphosis from primary candidate to White House nominee, is his inability to follow the celebrated maxim of Richard Nixon; that a Republican candidate should play to the right during the primaries, where voters are more conservative, but once the nomination is secure, head back to the centre where elections are won and lost.

It is not his fault that he is easily identified with the deeply unpopular Speaker, Newt Gingrich, and the scarcely less unloved Republican Congress - or that the populist Pat Buchanan could still make trouble at the San Diego convention.

But despite a first-hand view of how George Bush suffered from identification with the far-right at the Houston convention of 1992, Mr Dole still courts social and Christian conservatives, as in a blistering attack last week on Mr Clinton for destroying America's moral fabric.

Barely six months before the vote, many already feel that only two developments (best of all, both together) can give the listless Dole campaign real hope. One is nomination of retired General Colin Powell as his running mate, the other is a Whitewater sensation. But Gen Powell continues to say no, while despite every effort of Mr Dole's allies on the Senate Banking Committee and of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr in Little Rock, the imagined misdeeds of the then Governor Clinton remain unproven.

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