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No more Mr Nice Guy as Republicans hunger for 'red meat' to beat Clinton

THERE IS one nice man in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. His name is Richard Lugar and he is a senator from Indiana. The not always generous Washington press corps describes him as thoughtful, moderate, solid, responsible and pleasant. Strong on foreign policy, he is a fiscal conservative with an interest in social issues.

Mr Lugar doesn't have a chance of winning. He will have dropped out altogether, in all certainty, by the time the 30 qualifying rounds - the state primaries - have come and gone and the Republican candidate for the November 1996 election is announced at the party's National Convention in San Diego at the end of March.

What the Republican faithful are looking for in their candidate is barking aggression and, in the parlance of Washington, lots of red meat. Plenty will be on offer between now and the first primary, in New Hampshire, in five months' time.

Politics resumes its formal business this week when Congress reconvenes after the summer break, once more providing the stage for the battle between those who would cut government spending by a lot and those who would cut it by a little. Of far greater interest to the professional pundits, and to that minority of the American public whose notions of serious news extend beyond the OJ Simpson trial, will be the spectacle of the Republican grandees tearing each other to pieces in the pursuit of presidential glory.

Ten candidates have stepped forward, but only five merit even passing consideration: Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader; Phil Gramm, a senator from Texas; Pat Buchanan, a CNN talk-show host; Pete Wilson, the governor of California; and Lamar Alexander, a former governor of Tennessee. Never has the Repub-lican race exhibited a more conservative field. In this company, as Republicans with memories of gentler eras have remarked, Richard Nixon would come across as suspiciously left-wing.

If Republicans voted only with their hearts, Mr Buchanan would be the man. An "America First" isolationist who seeks to eliminate all foreign aid by the end of the century, he was perceived as a borderline psychotic when he ran against George Bush in 1992, but today it is his populism that is setting the mainstream tone. Opposed to abortion under any circumstances, he takes an Old Testament view of relations between the sexes. Mr Buchanan's wife, Shelley, is properly meek. At a political barbecue on 4 July Mr Buchanan, whose boyhood hero was Franco, sought to impress a gathering of Republican funders by contrasting his medieval marriage habits with those of the Clintons. Introducing Shelley to the crowd, he declared: "She's been working on your national health care plan all week, folks!" Shelley was not amused but Pat cackled with laughter.

Mr Buchanan is running neck and neck for second spot with Mr Gramm, a man described recently by one columnist as "a sourpuss college professor with a yahoo drawl and the mean squint of a bill collector". Mr Gramm himself would not entirely disagree with the portrait. "I've never been able to get anywhere on my good looks and charm," he has said. His strength lies in his capacity to bully people into giving him campaign money ($12m [pounds 8m] to date, compared to Mr Buchanan's $2m) and his much-touted, PhD- grasp of free market economics. One of his arguments for cutting social welfare to the bone is that the United States is "the only nation in the world where poor people are fat".

But Mr Gramm might have terminally severed his connection with the Republicans' powerful Christian constituency following the revelation two months ago that he had once invested a modest sum in a soft-porn film that was never made. Mr Wilson, clean-cut and unspectacular, is the one contender who has had the courage to declare that he is pro-choice on abortion. But he has sought vigorously, and with some success, to counter the perception that he might be a closet liberal by taking combative stands against "affirmative action" and immigration. Without a hint of shame, he formally announced his candidacy last week against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty, the first sight to greet so many millions of arriving American immigrants down the years. A calculating - if mind-numbingly unprepossessing - opportunist, he is feared by the Clinton camp because he is backed by California money and does not look as if he has stepped off the set of a Dracula movie.

Mr Wilson is dull, but Mr Alexander is duller. Were it not for the fact that "Lamar", as he likes to be known, has managed to milk $7.6m in campaign money by persuading the Southern rich that he resents the Washington elite as much as they do, he would be remembered by historians only for announcing his candidacy wearing an open-necked, checked shirt - quite possibly the most flamboyant thing he has ever done. Mr Dole is leading the pack, by $1m dollars in election funds and by around 30 points in the polls. His meat is not quite as red as Mr Buchanan's, but it is more digestible. He is - or proclaims he is - anti-abortion, anti-sex (in the movies and generally), anti-gun control laws and anti-gay. Last week, terrified that he might antagonise the "family values" crowd, he returned a $1,000 campaign contribution which had come from a group of gay conservatives.

It seems that Mr Dole believes little of what he says but, determined at 71 to make his last bid for the presidency count, is happy to play ventriloquist's dummy to his pollsters. The consummate Washington wheeler- dealer with more than three decades in Congress behind him claims to be passionately opposed to big central government. Grover Norquist, a crony of Newt Gingrich who runs the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, told the Washington Post recently that Mr Dole sounded as if he would "wear a clown suit if that is what they wanted".

The image is not entirely appropriate, because the comedy provided by Republican front-runners is either unintended or black. In their company, the only Screaming Lord Sutch on the horizon, the man without a hope, is that nice Mr Lugar.