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Party's hopes and fears hang on Dole's words

The advance publicity for once is no exaggeration. Still clearly trailing his Democratic opponent President Bill Clinton, Bob Dole tonight will accept the Republican nomination for President - and the taciturn Kansan, for whom flowery oratory is an abhorrence, must give the speech of his life.

Yesterday brought the moment Mr Dole has yearned for ever since his first unsuccessful run for the White House in 1980: the traditional convention floor roll-call vote of states, formally bestowing the crown upon him at last, at his third time of asking. But he has spent most of the past two days elsewhere, working on the address that may make or break his campaign.

Thus far the convention has been an unexpected success for the Republicans. Even the major television networks have paid their backhanded compliments, complaining that in the tightly scheduled live segments they run each night they have been forced to dance to the tune of the organisers. In the past 10 days Mr Dole has achieved most of his objectives. He has produced an arresting economic plan centred on a 15 per cent across-the- board tax cut, in the ebullient Jack Kemp he has picked arguably the strongest available vice-presidential running mate, and he has secured the endorsement of his arch foe Pat Buchanan.

Above all, in stark contrast to both the divisive and meanspirited Houston four years ago and to the highly conservative platform approved here, the message sent out to ordinary Americans from the convention stage in San Diego this week has been relentlessly moderate, upbeat and youthful.

Presentation has been slick in the extreme. Abortion, the issue which more than any other divides the party, has gone virtually unmentioned at the podium. Speaker Newt Gingrich did appear on Tuesday night. But he scarcely referred to the deeply unpopular Congress he leads, extolling instead the virtues of compassion and charity, and hailing Martin Luther King as "the greatest Georgian of the 20th century".

No less assiduously, the party has pursued the female voters among whom Mr Dole is exceptionally weak. Women such as Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas and Christine Todd Whitman, New Jersey governor, have been constantly featured, and Tuesday's keynote speech was entrusted to the 38-year-old New York Congresswoman Susan Molinari, who came across less as a political heavyweight than a harassed young mother from a TV sitcom - exactly as Mr Dole's advisers intended.

"I don't know a mom today who isn't being stretched to the limit trying to hold down a job while trying to hold down the fort," she said, in a naked pitch for the support of middle-class, suburban women - just like herself. She added some effective barbs against Mr Clinton. Her speech would be "a lot like a Bill Clinton promise: It won't last long and will sound like a Republican talking."

Bringing delegates to their feet, she depicted him as a dishonest and devious radical, and his White House as a nest of his "truth-dodging, FBI-abusing, privacy-violating, drug-coddling friends".

Now Mr Dole must similarly rise to the occasion. After a listless and bungling early campaign, the convention offers the candidate his biggest and best chance to sell himself to a sceptical public. At 73, he must dispel fears that he is too old, not least by providing the rousing vision that Americans, however unfairly, expect from their President, but which the pragmatic deal-maker Mr Dole has been conspicuously short on.

A poor speech would be a disaster, even a moderate one would run risk of being overshadowed by Mr Kemp, a compelling orator who makes his own acceptance speech tonight. Mr Dole must recapture the moving moment when he resigned from the Senate in June, setting out on his last campaign as "just a man ... with nowhere to go but the White House, or home".