Republican hopefuls play patriot games

Right-wing candidates are lining up to show their credentials to kick Bill Clinton out of the White House. But one man with little to prove to the US public has remained intriguingly silent. John Carlin reports

"I WAS conservative before conservative was cool," says Phil Gramm. "I was conservative before he was out of high school," retorts Bob Dole.

With the American presidential election now a mere 89 weeks away, the two leading contenders for the Republican candidacy have begun firing their first salvos in the sound-bite war. If past form is to be trusted, the winner will emerge a year from now in New Hampshire, a state the shape of a cake slice wedged between Maine and Vermont in the north-eastern corner of the United States.

During the last 30 years Republicans in New Hampshire, traditionally the first state to declare its nominee, have unfailingly predicted the party's presidential candidate. By the time the nomination jamboree comes around in February next year Mr Dole, Mr Gramm and half a dozen other contenders will between them have shaken hands with most of the state's one million inhabitants.

The exercise in saturation exposure began in earnest last Sunday at a Republican dinner in Manchester, the state's biggest city, and continued through the week at a series of small-town gatherings.

The Republicans are on a high. After the thrashing they handed to Bill Clinton's Democrats in November's mid-term congressional elections, they believe the presidency is ripe for the plucking. Mr Gramm and Mr Dole - senators both - have convinced themselves that the big prize will go to the candidate who succeeds in convincing the party faithful that he is the authentic embodiment of modern American conservatism.

Mr Dole, whom the polls show to be leading the pack by a wide margin, believes that the secret resides in the past. At 71, with 35 years in Congress behind him, he is the only candidate to have fought in the Second World War. "Maybe, just maybe there's one more call to serve for my generation," says Dole, seeking both to capitalise on his military valour - he was grievously wounded in battle, partially losing the use of his right hand - and to deflect worries about his age.

Mr Dole has calculated his pitch on the diagnosis that middle class Americans are enduring a period of profound uncertainty. Numerous anguished commentators have said that the country is experiencing an unprecedented "moral crisis". Partly this is attributable to the stagnation of the American Dream. The hard truth is dawning that the notion of divinely ordained material progress from one generation to the next is no more realistic than it is for the inhabitants of western Europe.

In such a climate the dangers posed by inner city crime, the risk of moral contagion by the phenomenon of unwed teenage motherhood among the poor, the threats to job advancement presented by affirmative action are all magnified in the minds of middle class white American voters.

Whether the causes are real or imagined, the sense of generalised malaise is a fact of political life. Each of the presidential candidates feel they must appear to provide a convincing cure. Mr Dole's response is twofold: to hark back to a time of certainties when the country was united behind a common enemy and the post-war future beckoned brightly; and to promise the end of affirmative action and the dawning of a new "colour-blind society" where economic preferment is a function not of skin colour (or gender) but merit.

Mr Gramm, and indeed all the other Republican candidates, have responded likewise to the outcry by white swing-voters and have declared that ending affirmative action tops the list of their presidential goals. Bob Dornan, a rank outsider on the macho right, typically complains that under President Clinton the military has been taken over by a lesbian mafia. All the candidates have also identified a clamour from voters to cut back Washington's influence and devolve powers to the regions. The difference lies in the emphasis - the third favourite, Lamar Alexander, has said he wishes to reduce Congress to a part-time institution and hand $200bn dollars of federal money to the states.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that what Americans look for in their Republican candidates is a conservative with a smile, a tough leader who can relate with ordinary folks. Mr Dole has a reputation as a conservative with a sneer. "Dole is so acerbic," said one Republican party worker, "that he can bite your ass off at a hundred yards." Accordingly Mr Dole has made a point in recent weeks of coming across as kinder, gentler. Two weeks ago he made an appearance on a late-night TV chat show hosted by the David Letterman, a cheery fellow more accustomed to interviewing the likes of Madonna and Sharon Stone.

Mr Gramm, who is delighted to be described by the press as a "tough Texan", is perceived to hold the most hardline right-wing positions and, a demonically driven fund-raiser, has accumulated a more sizeable campaign "war chest" than any other candidate so far. Working against him is the fact that he is married to a Korean and, the Washington whisper goes, few Middle American voters are prepared yet to contemplate the notion of an Asian First Lady.

His oratorical style, while assertive, tends to evoke images of a braying mule and, as he himself conceded in an interview last year, it remains to be seen whether "someone as ugly as I am or as conservative could be elected".

Talk to the Democrats and they will tell you they are praying that Mr Gramm's money wins. They are also placing some faith in the Republicans tearing each other to pieces over the one issue that most divides them: abortion. Mr Gramm is zealously pro-life but Mr Dole, who is also against abortion, argues that the substantial pro-choice lobby should be accommodated in the Republican "big tent": a position which may not sit well with the right-wing Christians who provide the party with much of its militancy and its votes.

Otherwise, in so far as the Clinton camp has a counter strategy, it is best summed up in the image Muhammad Ali used to describe the method he hit upon to knock out the fearsome George Foreman in the fabled "rumble in the jungle" in Zaire: the"rope-a-dope". "The Democrats' thinking is `let the Republicans punch themselves out,'" said Tom Mann of the Brookings Institute, a centrist Washington think-tank, "let them make mistakes, and when they're exhausted and weak cut in with some well-aimed jabs."

A tantalising third possibility, a subject of much romantic speculation in a land thirsting for a hero, is that Colin Powell, the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, makes a late entry - a la Ross Perot - into the ring. The polls show that the inscrutable general would be a formidable candidate; his friends say he has presidential ambitions, that he would love to be the first black man in the White House; and when it comes to cool, Messrs Gramm, Dole and Clinton are not in the same class.

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