This was no idle chatter. Mr Dole's wife Elizabeth is the screamingly obvious Republican candidate for the year 2000. Barring a change of heart by General Colin Powell, the most popular presidential contender who never was, Mrs Dole has the intelligence, poise and, most important of all, talent to murder the other Republicans in the field and then to do to Al Gore what President Clinton did to her husband.
Vice-President Gore, the front-runner for the Democratic candidacy, is no Bill Clinton. Mrs Dole - in the most ladylike possible way - is. In a post-Cold War age, where the ideological differences between the two big American parties are practically non-existent, style, presentation and packaging are the determining electoral factors. Mr Clinton has set the standard. Mrs Dole is right up to the mark, with the added blessing that she can present herself to the voters unencumbered by allegations of sexual scandals and seamy financial improprieties.
A cradler of hapless African infants and teary stalwart in the domestic battle against Aids, she is the person Princess Diana might have dreamt of becoming had she too lived to the age of 61. Happily married, gracefully empathetic, self-controlled, the always impeccably groomed Mrs Dole has done her political future no harm by occupying for the last five years the blameless post of president of the American Red Cross.
Where Diana is unlikely ever to have matched her accomplishments is in the field of public service. She has served with distinction in the cabinets of two presidents - as transportation secretary under Ronald Reagan; as labour secretary under George Bush.
She also happens to be intimately familiar with what it takes to run for elected office, having stood vigilantly at her husband's side during last year's presidential campaign. Indeed, it was she who provided the campaign's most memorable moment with her performance at the Republican convention in San Diego, a tour de force which prompted newspapers to draw flattering comparisons with the queen of feel-your-pain TV, Oprah Winfrey.
Touring the convention floor with a hand-held microphone, she waxed rhapsodic about her strong, compassionate, tender husband, paused for chats with strategically seated "friends" who bore moving testimony to the courage her husband had displayed following the terrible wounds he endured during the Second World War. One television commentator spoke for all viewers when he asked whether the Republican Party might have chosen the wrong Dole to be their candidate. Dan Rather, the veteran CBS News Anchor, declared, "What you have witnessed here tonight is the birth of a new form of campaigning and a new standard for convention speeches by which others will likely be judged for a long time."
"Others" was a mistake - in the view, at any rate, of the New Yorker magazine, which ran an article last month by Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates identifying Mrs Dole as the prospective candidate to beat in three years' time. George Stephanopoulos and Dick Morris, two heavyweight political analysts who have played critical roles in shaping the Clinton agenda, and Frank Luntz, a political consultant viewed by Republicans as King Arthur viewed Merlin, all told Mr Gates they believed Mrs Dole fulfilled all the requirements to be elected president.
On top of all her political and telegenic attributes, the simple fact that she is a woman should swing significant numbers of female voters into the arms of a Republican Party plagued in recent years by its inability to close the gender gap with the purportedly gentle, caring Democrats. As for the Angry White Men who handed the Republicans their thumping congressional victory in 1992, if there is any woman in American politics designed not to threaten their precarious masculinity it is Mrs Dole. A horse-riding, piano-playing Southern belle who won beauty contests and shone at debutante balls, she absorbed early on in life the old-fashioned lesson that for a woman to obtain power in a man's world smiles and insinuation are always to be recommended over snarls and confrontation.
A modern woman in substance but not in style, she is a sincerely pious person whose daily devotion to Bible-reading will not be lost on the powerful Christian contingent on whose support she would depend in the Republican primaries.
Sincerity, or the convincing appearance of sincerity, is the critical quality required of a successful presidential candidate.Mrs Dole, like Mr Clinton, oozes sincerity, while stopping just short of the nauseating mawkishness which characterises American public figures at their worst. Her doe eyes have it. Through them, like Bambi's mother, she conveys compassion, maturity and self-sacrifice.
But will she run? Her steadfast refusal even to contemplate answering the question when it is put to her by interviewers suggests strongly that she is giving the idea extremely serious thought. For otherwise, why not simply say she is not?
Another powerful clue was provided by her husband's outburst last week. Mr Dole, canny old politician that he is, does not drop a hint like that on national television, however droll his demeanour, if his intentions are not deadly earnest.
Perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence that the lady is, indeed, willing is provided in her official American Red Cross biography, which just happens to state that in a poll once "she was chosen by a significant margin... as the woman most likely to be the first female president of the United States".Reuse content