Runners and riders in the White House stakes

BILL CLINTON The Perils of Pauline President Ladbrokes odds to win in November: 4-7 on

Gennifer Flowers and the Vietnam draft nearly finished him four years ago; now, as primary season rolls around again, it's Hillary, Whitewater and Paula Jones. And yet 1992's self-appointed Comeback Kid somehow wriggles free of every scrape. Written off after the Republican sweep of Congress a year ago, he now starts the campaign odds-on favourite for a second term, having hijacked many of the Republicans' best lines.

No politician can change position faster - and none is better on the stump. At 49, he's younger than all but one of his rivals. His financial war-chest is full, there's not a Democratic challenger in sight, and the Republican field is drabness madeflesh. No Democrat has dared challenge him for the party nomination. His own approval ratings are more than 50 per cent, among the best of his presidency.

Forget gays in the military, the health-care reform fiasco - this president has the knack of getting his mistakes out of the way early. Or has he?

That's the perverse charm of Bill Clinton: just when he seems to have it made, something crops up. What this time?

ROBERT DOLE If he makes it, it will be a triumph of experience over hope Ladbrokes odds: 6-4

For 28 years a Senator for Kansas, Bob Dole is the eternal presidential loser. He lost as Gerald Ford's running-mate in 1976, he lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, to George Bush in 1988, and in 1996 - oh, no - is he going to lose again? A year ago, with Dole at 45 per cent in the polls and the rest nowhere, the very thought seemed impossible. But now he's struggling.

Too old at 72, a creature of Washington, too grumpy and bad-tempered; above all, they say, he's a legislative automaton who can't see beyond the fine print of a congressional continuing resolution. Who needs vision, he told a questioner about his White House plans, "I'm just gonna serve." That is, if he ever gets the chance. With Steve Forbes snapping at his heels, even overtaking in some New Hampshire polls, the Dole temper could be about to snap too. If so, his White House ambitions are over. But he's got a wife as smart as Hillary Clinton and with twice the poise and for once he's listening to his advisers. And there's that heroic war record, which Dole has barely mentioned. Don't write him off - after all, who else is there?

STEVE FORBES Maybe money can buy the White House

Ladbrokes odds: 8-1

The scion of the Forbes publishing fortune has spent his way into contention for the Republican nomination, preaching a flat tax, a flat tax and ... a flat tax. The public persona of Forbes, 48, is of a nice guy with a shy, lopsided smile, positively oozing good cheer and optimism, two qualities at a premium in a sepulchral Republican field.

In fact, he's a very serious operator, a family man with five daughters, not quite the son and heir you'd expect of the balloonist, motorbiking hedonist and self-publicist who was Malcolm Forbes Sr. His advisers include former top aides of that right-wing curmudgeon, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Most of all, he's loaded and is ready to spend it - up to $25m (pounds 16.5m) of a personal fortune of $450m, he says. Already he's lashed out $15m, almost all of it on a ruthless campaign of negative television and radio advertising which has targeted Bob Dole. Steve Forbes is picking up the millionaire-politician baton dropped (temporarily?) by Ross Perot. He is more thoughtful than the Texan but his political staying power is unproven. Already Forbes Jr is as famous as Forbes Sr, and with much greater reason.

LAMAR ALEXANDER Everyone's Republican dark horse - except that as of Louisiana's eve, the beast was hardly raising a trot Ladbrokes odds: 20-1

On paper, the ex-governor of Tennessee and much-admired Education Secretary in the Bush administration, 55 years young, dazzling pianist and happy warrior against Washington, is the most attractive candidate in the field and, many believe, the one with the best chance of beating Bill Clinton in November.

His views are conservative but undogmatic. Alexander is a forthright budget-balancer but no flat-taxer. But his striving for the common touch (he really did walk across New Hampshire in his trademark red-and-black plaid shirt to meet ordinary voters) is apt to make him look a lightweight fraud. He is under-

funded by the standards set by his rivals and, it would appear, under- advised. His slogan - "You'll go far with Lamar"- may fit his back-to- the-1950s image

but it falls flat in the slick 1990s.

With polls giving him scarcely 10 per cent, he must keep his head above water early on, do well in New England on 5 March and then score big in Florida on Super Tuesday. Assuming all of the above, he could yet make it. But it's a huge 'If'.

PAT BUCHANAN Eloquent anger can take you only so far in

politics Ladbrokes odds: 100-1

The 57-year-old conservative commentator and former Nixon/Reagan speechwriter earned his niche in election history four years ago.

Arguably, his challenge in the primaries scared George Bush out of the presidency, forcing the Republicans rightward and allowing Bill Clinton to seize the middle ground and win. Now the lovable old bruiser is at it again.

Charming and caustic as ever, he excoriates Nafta (the North American Free Trade Area), and foreigners of every hue, lambasts gun control and is courting the religious right with the toughest anti-abortion stance. Pat may be preening himself after his victory in last week's Alaska straw

poll; he may do very well in the Louisiana caucuses tonight; but, alas, 1996 is not 1992. Where it matters, in Iowa and New Hampshire, the "Buchanan Brigades" are a shadow of their old selves. In a field brimming with economic and social conservatives, he is unlikely to top 10 per cent. With his funds limited, he could be out of the race by Super Tuesday. The nomination? Forget it. But politics' loss will be the talk-circuit's gain.

PHIL GRAMM Living proof that in politics, charm is unnecessary

Ladbrokes odds: 14-1

Even his wife, Wendy Lee, admits she couldn't stand him the first time he approached her. But Phil Gramm, 53, is nothing if not persistent. He won Wendy, won a seat in Congress as a Southern Democrat, switched to the Republicans, moved on to the Senate and won bigger still.

With his peering turtle's eyes and harsh Texas drawl, he will never make the White House on looks or laughs. But no one can hammer an issue like Gramm - right now the balanced budget. He also has the thickest skin in Congress and the sharpest eye for publicity. No hypocrisy is too rank for Gramm in the pursuit of electoral office, and the most dangerous place on Capitol Hill, runs the joke, is between Phil Gramm and a television camera. He boasts money, good staff and a strategy: survive in Iowa and New Hampshire, do well in Arizona and Delaware, and then clean up in the South and West, where his

austere economic conservatism plays well. But isn't there enough of that in

Newt Gingrich's Congress already? Phil Gramm is surely another Mr 10 per cent.

Look for him to throw in the towel by April at the latest.