Republican panther eyes White House: Bob Dole leads the opposition in giving the President a rough ride

A PRICKLY old panther is stalking the political jungle in Washington, his teeth as sharp as they are long. After 100 days of power, the wear and tear may be showing on the youthful Bill Clinton. But as he approaches his 70th birthday, the Senate Minority leader, Bob Dole, is living an Indian summer - and loving it.

Finally, after almost two decades of near-misses, this is Mr Dole's hour. He was Gerald Ford's running mate in the ill-fated campaign of 1976; four years later he vainly challenged Ronald Reagan, then lost to George Bush in the 1988 Republican primaries. Now Mr Reagan is in his dotage, Messrs Bush and Ford are on the golf course and Bob Dole is the de facto leader of his party, the top Republican in Washington, at the zenith of his power and influence.

His office has been bombarded by dozens of requests for interviews. He has been in the Senate for nearly 25 years, but admiring profiles are blossoming anew in the weightiest newspapers in the land. Turn on almost any television talk show, and there is the leader of a not-so-loyal opposition, dispensing barbed advice to Mr Clinton and the Democrats. And after what happened to the President's economic stimulus bill earlier this month, they listen to every word.

Any idea the new administration might have nurtured of a pliant Congress vanished when the Senate Republicans, in a remarkable display of discipline, staged the filibuster that killed the President's dollars 16bn (pounds 10bn) package. The defeat may partly be ascribed to Mr Clinton's inexperience and other pressing claims on his attention. No less though, it was a dazzling triumph for Bob Dole.

Tactically he was perfection, so adroitly keeping his troops in line that the White House never had a chance of securing just the three defections that would have allowed the Democrats to push through the cloture motion that would have guillotined debate and saved the bill. As the struggle reached its climax, Mr Dole was virtually dictating terms of surrender to the White House.

Strategically too, he played his hand superbly. A single misstep and the Republicans would have been branded the party of the very 'gridlock' government that Mr Clinton was sent here to end. Not once, though, did Mr Dole gloat over victory.

'We're not trying to embarrass him,' he said, only to 'send a signal that we have quite a few thoughtful people on our side'. Moreover, by presenting the resistance as an exercise in budgetary rectitude, he gauged to perfection a public mood still fixated on the deficit. If it also appealed to supporters of Ross Perot, Bob Dole would be the last to object.

The ability to thwart cloture is his supreme weapon, in effect defining the limits of Mr Clinton's legislative authority. Barely a year ago however, it looked unlikely he would be around to use it. After undergoing prostate surgery in December 1991, he seriously considered retirement. But Mr Dole could not stay away from Washington, and Kansas re-elected him in November for the fifth straight time, with a landslide victory of 70 per cent.

'Politics is his life,' says Mr Dole's Senate No 2, Alan Simpson of Wyoming, and never has he enjoyed it more. Sardonic and caustic, he is a fighter to the core, who has overcome even the intermittent pain, and virtual loss of the use of his right arm caused by a wound in the Italian campaign of 1945. Temperamentally, the underdog role of opposition probably suits him better than all the years of dutiful service to Republican presidents in the White House.

And Mr Dole's resurgence has inevitably spurred other talk, that his sights are still set on the supreme prize. On the face of it, the idea of yet another presidential run is preposterous. His health seems sound, but come 1996 he will be 73, a last political hold-over from the generation fired by the Second World War, whose sunset seemed to be the defeat of George Bush.

And as his own string of past failures suggests, Mr Dole's aggressiveness and biting humour play better in Washington than in the country at large. But if that is his conclusion, he gives no sign of it, indeed just the opposite. The other week he was rallying the faithful - guess where? - in Iowa and New Hampshire. They just happen, of course, to be the first primary battle-grounds of election 1996.

(Photograph omitted)