US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTONS: Mrs Dole's talk-in steals the show

Rupert Cornwell sees a new poll star rise on TV

It was the night the made-for-TV convention became TV, when San Diego's Convention Center turned into a studio, and the delegates were the live audience.

Only it wasn't Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters or any other of the American talkshow divas working the floor. The lady wielding the microphone as if she'd been doing it for decades was Elizabeth Dole.

Throuhout the week the networks have been grumbling about how they have been sidelined by this glitzy Republican production; after Wednesday evening's tour de force, they might as well apply for voluntary redundancy.

The setting was hammy and contrived, the manipulation blatant and shameless.

But it worked. After 20 minutes of hokery, the American public could understand what the political cognoscenti have long known: that during this autumn's presidential campaign, Bob Dole's best salesman will be his wife.

"I'm going to be speaking to friends and I'm going to be speaking about the man I love," she said as she stepped down from the podium, "so it's just a lot more comfortable for me to do this down here with you."

And Ms Dole, the former high-school belle from Salisbury, North Carolina, did it - just like Oprah.

"Meet Bob Dole" was the object of the exercise, and it had plainly under preparation by convention managers for weeks.

Sitting conveniently in the front rows at the convention were people who had left their mark on the candidate: Tim Steiniger, a quadraplegic from his native Russell, Kansas, who inspired Mr Dole to set up a foundation for the disabled; a nurse who looked after him when he returned from Italy in 1945; and Ovsanna Kelikian, widow of the Armenian surgeon who helped repair his upper body after it had been shattered by a German shell.

That Ms Kelikian was an immigrant and a member of a social group that is especially wary of the Republicans' foreigner-bashing attitudes was of course entirely coincidental.

Just as it was an accident that a fourth person introduced by Mrs Dole, Senate usher Trudy Parker who worked outside the Majority leader's office and cried on the day Mr Dole resigned last June, happened to be a woman and black - two more groups the party is courting for all it is worth.

Mrs Dole managed to carry it all off without so much as a hint of a blush on her magnolia cheeks.

One of her strengths is to fill in the gaps - warm and easy going where her husband is dry and distant, open where he is shy, eloquent where he scrabbles for words.

Her southern accent is as honeyed as his Kansan twang is gruff.

Mrs Dole, of course, went to Harvard and served in the Reagan and Bush cabinets, and would undoubtedly be one of the most formidable First Ladies in history.

But this week there has been none of that. "I like to be the eyes and ears of my husband," she says demurely, passing over the fact she can also be his tongue and his brains.

But on Wednesday evening she was just the loving, supportive, doe-eyed wife, so different - ran the plain but unspoken message - from that pushy and abrasive Hillary Clinton.

"I just like to connect with people," she told that other priest-confessor of the talkshow firmament, Larry King, afterwards.

"The colour of your dress was brilliant," Mr King gushed. "Was it peach?" Not peach, Ms Dole firmly but sweetly corrected him, but "pumpkin".

Thus clad, she presented the real Bob Dole - not the Washington insider since time immemorial, but the downhome war hero from the American heartland, whose great modesty prevented him from talking about himself.

The 21-year Dole marriage has been a subject of some speculation in the American media (a joyless, politically motivated union, an article in the current issue of Vanity Fair suggests). But that was not the impression conveyed by Elizabeth Dole.

"When Bob was dating me," she told her audience and the nation, "he would often stay in our house.

"One morning he got up, threw a towel over his arm and shoulder and went down to see my mother. 'Ms Hanford,' he said, 'I think you should see my problem.'

"But my mother said, 'That's not a problem, that's a badge of honour'."

When she'd finished, the studio audience turned back into delegates and raised the roof.

"Kansas Bob" read one sign floating above the throng, "Dole Rocks" said another - and soon the whole place was rocking to the sounds of Mary Wells and My Guy.

No matter that Bob Dole grew up in the Glenn Miller era, and belongs to a congressional generation for whom Tamla-Motown might be the name of a bill regulating the car industry. Elizabeth Dole had made her point.

"Are you ready for this campaign?" Larry King enquired of her, when eventually it was all over.

Never has a question been more superfluous.

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