Why the Italians back Lt Bob

ANDREW GUMBEL

Castel D'Aiano

Anyone wondering why a candidate as apparently uninspiring as Bob Dole is looking so strong in the race for the White House should know that the Republican frontrunner has a secret weapon up his sleeve. Let's call it the tortellini factor.

As Mr Dole waited for yesterday's results, he may perhaps have spared a thought for his friends in Castel D'Aiano, a mountain village in central Italy, who have been waving flags, fixing "Dole for President" stickers to their car bumpers and offering their unconditional moral support ever since the senator from Kansas threw his hat into the presidential ring.

Castel D'Aiano is the spot in the Appenines where 22-year-old Lieutenant Robert Dole of the US 10th Mountain Division almost died on 14 April 1945, the day the Americans and local partisans mounted their final offensive to overcome the German occupiers of northern Italy.

Since the war, it has also been a regular pilgrimage site for the civilian Bob Dole, who has won the hearts of the villagers and, since last year, been honoured with a special plaque erected on the site where he was wounded.

It is a curious friendship. Mr Dole is an old-school conservative and a vigorous anti- Communist; the 1,700 citizens of Castel D'Aiano, including most members of the Friends of Bob Dole committee, are most definitely on the pinker side of the political spectrum.

It would be a little simplistic to call them Communists but, in common with the rest of the Emilia Romagna region around Bologna - heartland of both the Italian partisan movement and the PDS, successor to the old Italian Communist Party - they have voted for the left at every national election since the war.

"Under normal circumstances I would be rooting for Clinton," admitted Gabriele Ronchetti, the village's journalist, insurance broker and Bob Dole Committee co-ordinator all rolled into one. "But it's different when you know the person. This is not about politics, it's about human relations."

Human relations, yes, but also myth-making. According to local gossip, Lt Dole fell heroically while liberating Castel D'Aiano from the Germans and survived his wounds only thanks to the kindnesses of a local family, the Tondis, who took him in until he could be ferried to a military hospital. (His right arm remains almost useless.)

In fact, Castel D'Aiano was liberated at the beginning of March 1945, more than a month earlier, and Lt Dole was hit in the struggle to liberate Roffeno, the next village to the north, which saw some of the most vicious fighting of the campaign. He was transported straight away to a US army hospital in Pistoia, 50 miles south, and never even spoke to the good people of Castel D'Aiano.

His association with the village dates only from 1962, when he made his first trip back to the area and stopped at a cafe to ask for directions to the hillock where he had fought his terrible last battle. The cafe owner, Pierino Tondi, also ran a restaurant and in no time the newly elected senator and his two bodyguards were tucking into bowls of the local speciality: tortellini.

Suddenly the vagaries of local politics, the Cold War and the red menace didn't seem so important any more. Mr Dole was transformed into an Italophile. "We've never talked about politics, on any of his visits," Mr Tondi recounted. "He likes to come into the kitchen and see the pasta boiling."

Now that Mr Dole seems sure to win the Republican nomination, Castel D'Aiano plans to send a delegation to Washington for election day.

So what's in it for Castel D'Aiano? Well, there is the irresistible pleasure of seeing an important man enjoying his food. But there may be something else Mr Dole can do if his campaign expenses don't run him dry. The village bell-tower was destroyed in the war and only partially rebuilt before funds ran out in the early 1950s; now Castel D'Aiano is trying to raise money to finish the job. Surely Mr Dole, of all people, understands there is no such thing as a free plate of tortellini.

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