Leading article: Whitewater, not Dole, is Clinton's main worry

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The Independent Online
The curtain has fallen and first of all, one cheer for the producers. The Republicans put on a fabulous show in San Diego this week. Were they not supposed to be the party of intolerance, cherished by gun-toting rednecks, anti-immigrant xenophobes, abortion clinic bombers, and economic Darwinists for whom success in the marketplace is the only guarantee of survival? Instead, for four days, America was treated to a symphony of moderation. Not a spokesman of the religious right was heard from the podium. Women were everywhere, delivering the keynote address, lambasting Bill Clinton, holding forth about defence and foreign policy - and this from a party which before the convention was trailing the Democrats among female voters by some 30 per cent. But American political conventions are an exercise in the suspension of disbelief. By this measure, to use Bob Dole's characteristically laconic numerical scale of excellence, this one rated a 10, maybe an 11, for sleight of hand and image makeover from the 1992 Houston convention of dark memory, when Pat Buchanan ruled and the downfall of George Bush was sealed.

But a convention is ultimately mere packaging. What now for the product? Given his dismal record as an orator, Bob Dole made a fair fist of it on Thursday evening. Trust me, he asked his countrymen, contrasting himself to the self-indulgent, deceitful baby-boomer in the White House. He was, he claimed less plausibly, "the most optimistic man in America" - although his entire acceptance speech was posited on the premise that the country of his youth was a godlier, nobler place than the one led by Bill Clinton. There were some purple passages, and some meandering litanies of vague intentions, at best tedious, at worse scary, all typical Dole. Thanks to his convention managers, he now has a chance of winning in November. A chance, but no more.

Mr Dole has several assets. His wife, Elizabeth, is graceful and exceedingly accomplished, possessed of a political acumen for which Hillary Clinton would kill. In Jack Kemp he has a splendid running mate, inspirational, nationally known, and a credible president should anything happen to a chief executive partially disabled and 73 years old. Above all there is the incredible Dole life story, how he overcame war wounds that would have broken the body and soul of a lesser man, and the huge moral authority that flows from it. But the role of preachy grandfather has risks. Mr Dole's speech pressed the usual Republican buttons on crime, taxes and education and defence; but nothing in his exhortations to patriotism, decency and the American Dream suggested he has a clue about the everyday problems of modern life.

Not so the man he will face in November, the most skilful campaigner in recent American political history. On 26 August, the Democrats will have their chance in Chicago, directing their convention fire less at Mr Dole than the meanspirited, ultra-conservative Republican platform the candidate professes not even to have read. As measured by the attending delegates (most of them wisely prevented from speaking), this was the most right-wing Republican convention of modern times. The Democrats will not let him forget that.

There are other handicaps as well. Ross Perot is not the force he was in 1992 but still has a $2bn personal fortune. Assuming he wins his own Reform Party's nomination this weekend, he will take more votes from Mr Dole than from President Clinton. The Dole "vision" is still next to non- existent; stripped of the purple passages inserted by his speechwriters, his address was plodding. And, despite the verbal firepower provided by Jack Kemp, that high priest of the supply-side, Mr Dole's tax-cut proposals don't add up, either literally or figuratively. Why, when the economy is thriving and the deficit falling, should his countrymen get rid of an incumbent President who after a miserable start seems to have got the hang of his job.

Somehow Mr Dole must make virtues of his perceived weaknesses. He has to convince a country of short memory, and weaned on hyperbole, that understatement and half a century old heroism have their merits. That chance, curiously, may come in the three Presidential debates this autumn, widely but wrongly assumed to be a walkover for the touchy-feely Bill Clinton. Expectations for Mr Dole are so low that a draw would be a victory. And the self-deprecating one-liner, sadly not on display on Thursday evening, is a Dole speciality. Just one sardonic pin to burst a balloon of Clintonian verbosity could work wonders. Nothing though, after Colin Powell's triumph in San Diego this week, would do more for Mr Dole's cause than the early enlistment of the general, either as regular featured stump-speaker, or, better still, as Secretary of State for Defense in a future Dole administration. But it will be an uphill struggle, unless Whitewater goes critical.

Therein probably lies Mr Dole's best hope. Mr Clinton's support is broad but shallow. If nothing else, in San Diego this week the stale old warrior of Congress has been re-introduced to his country as a moral hero, poised to take advantage of a new flare-up of the Clinton "character question". And suddenly the terrain looks promising for Republicans. A grand jury in Washington is deliberating whether to indict Mrs Clinton for perjury, while in Little Rock, James McDougal, the Clintons' partner in the original Whitewater land venture who was convicted of fraud in May, is said to be co-operating with prosecutors in the hope of a lighter jail sentence.

The Dole campaign looks better today than it has ever looked before. But the election may yet be settled, not by this week's nominee, nor by the incumbent President, but by Kenneth Starr, unelected special counsel in the Whitewater affair who is at present the most powerful politician in America.

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