As a clutch of Republican candidates make their way to Iowa, where a month from now the most brutal election season on earth begins, one question alone is relevant: can anything or anyone stop the Senate majority leader, Bob Dole, from finally securing his party's presidential nomination?
Contrary to most predictions, Mr Dole's position today is even more dominant than a year ago; 1995 was supposed to be the year when one or two candidates emerged from the pack to establish themselves as rivals, but no one has. As the Kansas Senator knows from two failed White House bids in 1980 and 1988, in presidential politics as in life, nothing is certain. But the odds today must be that he will clinch victory within five weeks of the Iowa caucuses on 12 February.
On 20 February comes the New Hampshire primary, then contests in Delaware and Arizona, followed by consecutive "Super Tuesdays" in New England and much of the South. By 19 March, when the big Midwest states of Ohio, Illinois and Michigan vote, matters may well be decided.
In every sense Mr Dole bestrides the field. At 72, he is by far its oldest member. He leads in the polls with 40 per cent or more, as his closest rivals struggle to reach double figures. With $24m (pounds 15.7m) in the bank, he is by far the best financed candidate. He has the endorsement of 20 of the 31 sitting Republican state governors - not to mention his role in the continuing fight in Washington over the federal budget, guaranteeing him free media exposure of which his challengers can but dream.
And, just as with any winning politician, luck has been with him. If Mr Dole could have written the Colin Powell script, he would not have changed a word from real life. For weeks in the autumn his declared rivals could but kick their feet in frustration as American politics froze, waiting for the word from the General. In the end, General Powell joined the Republican party, but not the presidential race. Thus Mr Dole was spared from taking on the most popular figure in US public life, who even among conservative Republican primary voters was running neck and neck with him in the polls.
There were lesser strokes of fortune too. A year ago many political insiders believed Pete Wilson, the canny and battle-tested California Governor, was the man most likely to upset Mr Dole. But to universal astonishment, an inept Wilson campaign collapsed almost before it had begun, leaving behind a pile of debts and another heavyweight gubernatorial endorsement for - of course - Bob Dole.
Today his closest challenger is the millionaire publisher Malcolm "Steve" Forbes, a man unversed in politics who by common consent ultimately has no chance. Mr Forbes only declared his candidacy in the summer. But his fresh style and "politics of joy" message of low taxes and unshackled enterprise, hammered home by saturation TV advertising courtesy of the Forbes family fortune, has catapulted him into second place.
He may have no chance of catching Mr Dole. But in Iowa and New Hampshire, those traditional crucibles of presidential campaigns past, Mr Forbes has moved ahead of both Senator Phil Gramm of Texas and Lamar Alexander, the former Governor of Tennessee, who were considered along with Mr Dole to make up the field's top tier.
Joyless, grating, and so far a specialist only at winning meaningless straw polls, Mr Gramm is bogged down in a separate battle with Pat Buchanan, the one-time White House speechwriter and TV talk show commentator, for the loyalty of the social and economic right. Mr Alexander, meanwhile, comes across as uninspiring and cheery, in contrast to Richard Lugar of Indiana, the third senator still in the running, who is uninspiring and earnest.
The other two contenders, the former UN official Alan Keyes and the firebrand right-wing Congressman Robert Dornan of California, will provide entertainment but little else until their inevitable withdrawal. Unless he can lift himself from the low single figures, Mr Lugar too faces a similar fate.
In truth, perhaps the only person who can defeat Bob Dole is Bob Dole. One old man's gaffe, one bout of ill-health, could turn the spotlight on his greatest potential weakness - his age. Conceivable, though less likely, is a fatal display of the celebrated Dole temper, reminding voters that the "kinder, gentler" image he cultivates is but repackaging of the vicious-tongued politician of yesteryear.
Most serious, however, is the lack of a message that proved the undoing of George Bush four years ago. Do Americans really want as their next President a septuagenarian legislative fixer, whose pitch to voters boils down to: "Trust me, I've been tested?" But at the start of 1996, as at the start of 1995, the Republican nomination to take on Bill Clinton is Bob Dole's to lose.Reuse content