Powell leaves field clear for the dour and the dull

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A gust of wind blew through Washington on Wednesday afternoon, at just around the time when General Colin Powell was announcing to a largely disappointed American electorate that he would not be running for the presidency next year.

Meteorologists said it was to do with high pressure over the Atlantic. Students of Washington politics might have interpreted the phenomenon as a collective exhalation of breath from President Bill Clinton, and the 10 candidates who have declared their intentions to run for the Republican presidential nomination.

President Clinton's sigh of "quiet relief" (as White House sources put it) reflected the widespread perception that General Powell would have defeated him soundly in a head-to-head electoral contest. But the man who has most cause for celebration is Bob Dole, whom the polls show to be far ahead of the rest of the Republican presidential field.

Mr Dole, the Senate majority leader, knows 1996 will be his last chance to fulfil an ambition that has been gestating since he first entered Congress in 1960. He is 72 and this will be his third attempt to become president. He failed early in the primaries against Ronald Reagan and George Bush in 1980 and 1988.

Mr Dole - whose Dickensian name aptly captures a dour, colourless disposition - would not have relished a fight against the immensely popular General Powell. Doubly gratifying for Mr Dole was the general's decision to reveal that he had just become a member of the Republican party, he announced at his Wednesday press conference.

This was a pleasing bonus for Mr Dole for, should he win the Republican nomination, he can expect to bask in the warm glow of General Powell's public support. He may even be in a position to dangle before the electorate the tantalising proposition that, in the event of becoming president, he would appoint General Powell to his cabinet.

Against Mr Clinton, Mr Dole will need all the help he can get. Young enough to be the Kansas senator's son, Mr Clintone will not be outdone in energy. He is also a far more stirring orator than Mr Dole, who sometimes sounds so stilted as to convey the impression that he has difficulty reading.

The interest over the next four months, when the first Republican primaries come up, will centre on Mr Dole's party rivals. Will Pat Buchanan, the CNN talk-show host, so inflame the Republican faithful with his fervid right-wing rhetoric ("build a 2,000-mile Iron Curtain across the Mexican border") that they will be persuaded to vote with their spleens and not with their heads, thereby handing Mr Clinton re-election on a plate?

Will they go for the marginally less zealous Phil Gramm, the Texan senator who looks like a turtle and brays like a mule? Mr Gramm pondered out aloud earlier this year whether "someone as ugly as I am or as conservative could be elected". (The answer, the cherubic Mr Clinton would be happy to inform him, is no.)

Some speculation will also centre on Lamar Alexander, a former governor of Tennessee. He is neither abrasive nor militant. He is just plain nice. And a little dull. Mr Clinton's problem campaigning against Mr Alexander would be to keep his sarcasm in check, for fear that he would be seen as a bully, gratuitously mean to the most inoffensive, most hard-working, slowest boy in the class.

The sense of deflation with which the American public responded to the news that General Powell was not running coincided with audible groans of despair from the media condemned to cover next year's campaign. They feel like football reporters might who, hopeful of covering the Premiership, are assigned by their editors to the Endsleigh League.