But Mr Dole's shaky performance in the early primaries, and the strange gods invoked by the rabble-rousing Pat Buchanan, have left the entire Republican strategy for 1996 in tatters. The game was to paint the gay- loving, gun-hating, womanising, draft-dodging Bill Clinton as "out of the mainstream"; now it is the Republicans who find themselves trying to scramble back on to the centre ground.
Mr Dole faces two great problems and one great unknown. The first problem is how to co-opt Mr Buchanan's vitality, and his blue-collar support, without swallowing the poison of his extremism. Mr Dole needs the grassroots organising power of the Republican right to get out the vote for him in November. Contrary to the received view, US elections are not decided on television alone; you have to get those couch potatoes into the polling booths.
A decisive moment will be the Republican convention in San Diego in August. Mr Buchanan and his scores of delegates will have to be given their due if they are to play on the same team in the autumn. But Mr Dole cannot allow them to turn the convention, as they did in 1992, into a prayer- meeting for fundamentalist right-wing intolerance.
The second great problem facing Mr Dole is his choice of running-mate. He might sensibly choose, say, General Colin Powell, who is, like him, a centrist, Washington insider. But such a choice would be bitterly contested on the right of the party (not just for racist reasons, though, to be sure, race would be a part of it).
Bob Dole is a cautious man. Since he is an old-fashioned (and just plain old) Midwestern Senate leader, he will go for a young, Southern, modern conservative type with no Washington experience. This will lose him no votes but gain him very few.
The other unknown is Ross Perot. If he enters the race as a third force, he will siphon off part of the anti-Clinton vote and probably hand the President a second term. Will the Texan billionaire run? Almost certainly.
At this early stage in the proceedings it is hard to see the President - now 12 points ahead in the polls - being turned out of office. But Mr Clinton's entire public life has been a big dipper. If he is up today, nothing is more certain than that he will be down tomorrow. The economy, Whitewater, the US mission to Bosnia remain giant hostages to fortune.
In other words, Bill Clinton can still lose it; it is difficult to see Bob Dole winning it. Even in his moment of triumph after eight primary wins on Tuesday night, he offered no answer to the question that stumped Edward Kennedy in 1980: "Why do you want to be president?"Reuse content