Republicans panic as Dole faces fading fortunes

Only a year ago, they ruled Capitol Hill and the White House appeared ripe for the taking. Today Speaker Newt Gingrich is arguably the least loved public figure in America, their Presidential aspirant Bob Dole trails Bill Clinton by more than 20 per cent in the polls, and Republicans contemplate the previously unthinkable - that the Democrats may well win back Congress.

Six months remain before election Day on 5 November, time enough for the economy, Whitewater, or events in Bosnia, Russia or the Middle East to redraw the political landscape; but rarely in history have the fortunes of the two major US parties so swiftly and completely reversed.

In the spring of 1995, Republican and Democratic pundits alike were proclaiming a secular change in national politics, and a South returning to the Republican fold after more than a century, that would virtually guarantee the party a lock on power for decades. Today the calculation is very different and increasingly desperate: how to prevent the loss of just 19 seats that would hand the House of Representatives back to the Democrats.

For the moment at least, that task looks mighty hard. The problem is a vicious circle which the party shows no sign of breaking: an unpopular Republican Congress, saddled with an image of extremism and intolerance, drags down Mr Dole - whose own shortcomings as campaigner and projector of a clear-cut message cast a pallor on the prospects of Republican Congressmen and Senators themselves running for re-election. In voting preferences for the 435 House races, the Republicans now trail Democrats nationally by seven points.

The man in the trickiest position is Mr Dole. Far from his runaway victory in the primaries serving as a springboard, it has proved a trapdoor into an opinion poll abyss. According to a CNN/USA Today poll this week, Mr Clinton's lead has widened to 21 points, a gap at this stage which has never been closed in any recent election.

Some sanguine Republicans point to the 19 point advantage which Michael Dukakis briefly enjoyed over George Bush in the summer of 1988 before being soundly defeated that November. What they do not mention however is that Mr Bush was facing one of the poorest campaigners of recent times. Alas for Mr Dole, he must face one of the very best.

The result has been creeping panic, verging on open rebellion. Emerging briefly from a self-imposed political purdah last week, Mr Gingrich pronounced the party to be "in a funk." A recent TV interview by Mr Dole was described by the Republican columnist Bob Novak as the "worst single television interview" by a television candidate in 20 years, reflecting "disorganisation, lack of discipline and failure to articulate a coherent message."

But how is Mr Dole to put that right ? Step down as Senate majority leader, say some, and get out into the country to project a vision for the country, shedding the mantle of dour legislator unable to look beyond the fine print of a legislative amendment. But that overlooks two uncomfortable realities, say those who want Mr Dole to stay put here: For a man who is a wretched campaigner, the Senate floor is a better theatre - and the exposure is free. After an especially expensive primary season, Mr Dole has no money to spend on campaigning and advertising.

As that argument continues, the Kansas Senator is signally failing to display the his vaunted mastery of the Senate. On a host of issues, ranging from the minimum wage to health care reform, he has been stymied and outmanoeuvred - sometimes by a Democratic Senate minority, sometimes by opponents within Republican ranks.

As he conducts Congressional business, Mr Dole must also tend to party affairs, above all the August nominating convention which, along with his choice of Vice President, will be his great opportunity to mobilise his dispirited troops. But at the most untimely moment, the abortion issue again threatens to create turmoil in San Diego.

The bugbear, as in the past, is the traditional clause in the party platform calling for a constitutional ban on abortion.

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