Wooden Dole flounders as Clinton races on

Pity poor Bob Dole in his chase to recapture the White House for the Republicans this autumn. Both by the gods and by Bill Clinton, he is outmanoeuvred at every turn.

He offers a risky 15-per-cent tax cut to revive a sinking economy. Except that the economy, little thanks to the White House, now is its strongest in decades. He planned to berate his opponent's failure to implement welfare reform - only to see Mr Clinton last month sign, and claim credit for, a largely Republican welfare bill.

Yesterday the pattern seemed to repeat itself. Turning to crime and drugs in his search for an issue to reinvigorate his candidacy, Mr Dole delivered a major speech in Philadelphia in which he vowed to double federal spending on prison building, stiffen sentences for violent criminals and force offenders to pay compensation to their victims.

Deftly, he linked a supposed lack of "character" among the President and his circle of younger White House aides with the surge in teenage drug abuse since Mr Clinton came to power, lambasting the "wink-and-nod policies of this Administration," which he accused of operating a "liberal living laboratory of leniency."

Normally such rhetoricwould underline the Republicans' chosen image of tough on crime, law-and-order party, which served them so well through the 1970s and 1980s. No longer however. At the very moment Mr Dole was declaring war on the criminal classes in Philadelphia, Mr Clinton was 600 miles away in Cincinnati, collecting the coveted endorsement of ... the National Fraternal Order of Police.

Never has a Democrat won the backing of the country's largest police organisation. But crime is another issue Mr Clinton has stolen from his foes. The Republicans may huff and puff, his campaign insists, but their candidate has delivered, by sponsoring laws banning various assault weapons and putting tens of thousands of new police officers on the streets. Both measures, notes the Clinton camp, were opposed by Mr Dole.

What is more, the White House can brandish statistics showing that in most categories, with the glaring exception of drug use among the young, serious crime has begun to recede - not least the murder rate in many big cities, led by New York. And the public seems to be buying the argument.

Nothing more clearly bespeaks the current state of the electoral contest than the candidates' travels.

While the Dole campaign is forced to waste its most precious resources - money and its candidate's time - in places like Virginia and Florida, normally blue-chip Republican strongholds but this year toss-ups, Mr Clinton has the luxury of carrying the battle into states where Democrats usually do not have a prayer.

Arizona, for instance, has voted Republican in every election since 1948, but Mr Clinton spent a day in the state last week, buoyed by polls showing he has a fighting chance of carrying it in November. He is neck and neck with Mr Dole in Texas, and ahead in Indiana which last went Democrat in 1964.

Such are the local details of a national race in which Mr Clinton holds a lead of between 12 and 20 points.

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