Leading Article: If Bob Dole's the best, something's very wrong

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Robert Dole is a good man, a bright man, and even quite a nice man. But he is not going to be President of the United States, and it is about time that the Republican Party - which is preparing to nominate him as its candidate - recognised that fact. The big question is, why did the American political system, much vaunted as the exemplar of pluralist democracy, throw up a candidate who effectively annuls the presidential election campaign and reduces it to either irrelevance (at best) or farce (at worst)?

Mr Dole, a long-time senator and experienced legislator, has never caught the public imagination. He is not a vivacious campaigner, to say the least. He is not a good public speaker, and he has few big ideas. In the past few weeks, his campaign has plumbed new underwhelming depths. His dusted down slogan - "A better Man for a better America" - is leaden. He is between 20 and 25 percentage points behind Bill Clinton in the polls. A series of damaging gaffes have led him to curb his off-the-cuff remarks, making him seem even less interesting. "Humourless group. Don't wanna say anything," he said when he met a group of journalists this week.

Worse, many leading Republicans are starting to say in public what they have thought in private for some time: Bob has no wings, not even ones that can be implanted by spin-doctoring force. He won't fly. Some of his party are even starting to think the unthinkable: that the man who won the primaries should not be the man who is chosen by the Republican Convention in San Diego in August.

Some still believe the next few months can turn everything around. The convention always gives the candidate a kick, and Clinton himself could always be his worst enemy. But it is probably wishful thinking on the Republicans' part to believe that time will solve the problem. It is futile for the right to hope that Whitewater, or the clutch of minor scandals that have accumulated around it, will help to swing the election. Little has emerged to suggest that the Clintons were guilty of any criminal act; most Americans cannot understand the details of these extraordinarily complex affairs. And even those who are clear about what is really at stake are not entirely agreed that it absolutely matters.

Moreover, the Republican Convention risks becoming an occasion to tear the party apart, rather than anoint a leader. There are three strategies open to the Republicans, if they want to reopen the question. The first is the I Can't Believe He's A Republican strategy; in other words, pick someone who is regarded by the public as independent, above partisan politics, beyond the petty Beltway squabbles that so many people detest. Colin Powell, polls suggest, would be the ideal candidate, from the voters' point of view; but Mr Powell has counted himself out. The second option is the Clear Blue Water strategy. In the same way as the Conservative Party has been invited by its right wing to distance itself from the opposition, the Republicans could strike out into the vast ocean of Gingrichism or Buchananism. Problem: there is little to suggest that this would make much of an inroad into the Clinton lead. Buchanan is regarded as a compelling and lively stump orator, who stirs up audiences and controversy and interest, but cannot command a dominating lead among the broad population. Gingrich's goose is already well and truly spattered with shot.

The third strategy is to find the Real Thing. Find a Republican with a proven track-record in office who has leadership and name recognition. One obvious contender would be James Baker, the former secretary of state, treasury secretary and chief of staff has held virtually every office short of the presidency. But Mr Baker is not a campaigner, he is a classic Washington insider. That is what the Republicans want to get away from.

And therein rests the Republican hopelessness, and, possibly, the pointlessness of the forthcoming campaign. Mr Dole's weakness is really the Republican Party's weakness. The party struggled to find a candidate in the primaries, because none of those who presented themselves commanded any clear majority. It is struggling now, because there is no single figure around whom the party can unite and who can also command public support.

On one level, since a Clinton victory is not an obviously bad thing, the Republican failure might be viewed as no great tragedy. But the weakness of the Republicans ought to be the source of real concern, inside and outside the US. In the absence of a strong Republican candidate, the election may well take a strange turn. The lure of Ross Perot remains strong, and he could easily emerge as a strong third force in November, just as in 1992. Ross Perot represents an unattractive side of American politics: personalist, xenophobic, authoritarian.

However, even more seriously, the present campaign ought to be provoking Americans into wondering why their political system has proved flatly incapable of mustering a proper contest in 1996. Bill Clinton is not, by any means, a perfect president. It is frankly embarrassing that the American political system cannot conjure up a competitive candidate to challenge him. And the reason it can't is even more embarrassing: the political system in America is, at the federal level, hung up on static immovable issues such as abortion, or is merely an exercise in futile gesturing (vide the Contract with America, and other budget-related sabre- rattlings). Right now, American is showing us that, contrary to its own self-image, it is no great model for democracy. Instead, it is a warning against political sclerosis.