Profile: Dole faces his last hurrah

Next week the Republican presidential contender will be hailed as a conquering hero in a frenzy of choreography. But behind the smiles, says Rupert Cornwell, his party is being taken over
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For one wonderful, all-intoxicating moment - lasting at least as long as it takes a blizzard of red, white and blue balloons to drift to earth from the 27-feet-high ceiling of the ungenerously small San Diego Convention Center - Bob Dole will stand supreme. There on Thursday evening, having been ferried across the city's great bay like a conquering emperor of old, a gnarled 73-year-old Kansan will live the American politician's penultimate dream: acclaimed and adored by a gathering of 1,990 delegates from every state in the land as he accepts the Republican party's nomination for the Presidency.

The leathery, eternally tanned Dole face will crack into a wolfish grin, and as he savours his triumph, surely even sweeter still at the third time of asking, the taking of the White House itself will seem the merest formality. And who is to grudge him his instant of finely choreographed glory, the gooey show of unity that briefly smoothes over the deepest divisions? Between now and election day on 5 November, there may be few others.

The harsh fact is that Bob Dole enters this convention as the most poorly placed Republican candidate in at least 30 years. Not since Barry Goldwater in 1964 has one been further adrift in the polls. In 1976 and 1992, Gerald Ford and George Bush were almost as far behind at a comparable stage, but they at least had the advantage of incumbency. The past month has been a series of disasters great and small. One moment he seemed to doubt that nicotine was addictive, the next he was gratuitously snubbing the NAACP, the most prestigious black civil rights group. This past week has seen further discomfort: a cave-in on abortion to right-wingers that flatly contradicted earlier commitments, and the embracing of a radical tax-cutting, deficit-boosting economic plan that runs contrary to both his record over 35 years in Congress and every instinct in his body.

Such is the price to pay, however, when your deficit in the polls is 20 per cent, your opponent is stealing your every decent idea, and bribery of the voter seems the only recourse. Today Dole announces his vice-presidential running mate. He will be a worthy soul, to be sure - but not Colin Powell, the one man who could have transformed Republican prospects at a stroke.

And so we are left with the convention. These days, it is said, a convention counts for little. The smoke-filled room is a memory from a remote pre- environmentalist era. More than any of its predeccessors, the four-day spectacular which begins in San Diego on Monday will be a pageant of rubberstamping. Organisers describe it as a "uniquely interactive gathering." In fact, long before it happened, the occasion was pre-produced for television, complete with fuzzy videos "introducing" Mr Dole to a nation he has served prominently for three decades. Only the ingenuous, though, need fear a stumble on the apparatus and the intrusion of real politics: "There won't be any political issues at this convention," Paul Manafort, the convention manager, assures. But if there are no issues, then image becomes all.

The networks and newspapers will do all in their power not to sup too obediently from the Republican spoon. But next week the party will have its main and last chance of a sustained public showcase, free of competition from the Olympics, the Democrats - even from Clinton, politicking in California this week but graciously on holiday in Wyoming the next. Rather than another orgy of Clinton-bashing, however, what Dole needs desperately is harmony and unity.

Beyond argument he is a stunningly inept campaigner: undisciplined, a wretched and platitudinous speaker, quite bereft of the "vision" that Americans expect from their President. Often he can barely conceal his disdain for the contortions and absurdities of life on the stump. But that is not the only reason for his predicament. Equally responsible are the splits within his own party between moderates and conservatives, especially social conservatives and the religious right, and above all on the issue of abortion. The "Big Tent" has shrunk, the "Open Door" has all but closed. Ronald Reagan, of course, charmed every Republican faction into submission. But his famous "Eleventh Commandment", to "Speak no ill of a fellow Republican," is now honoured in the breach.

With unusual patience, Dole has tacked back and forth this summer to win both social conservatives and pro-life moderates to a compromise on the abortion language in the convention platform. In the end there was a compromise - or more exactly, a capitulation to the religious right, reiterating the demand for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion, from whose text even the word "tolerance" was literally struck out.

Thus, in cameo, the explanation for the Republican Party's fall from grace since it recaptured control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, just 21 months ago. Thus, too, the prime reason for the wretched state of the Dole candidacy. Since 1992 the fire-breathing Pat Buchanan has roamed the land. The Christian Coalition of the evangelist Pat Robertson (who ran for president in 1988) has been around for even longer, but never has the party seemed as intolerant and exclusive as now, since Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House of Representatives in January 1995, and the religious right took control of a dozen state parties.

Mr Dole's dilemma, therefore, is that (if Ralph Reed, the angel-faced martinet who is executive director of the Christian Right, is to be believed) 60 per cent of delegates to the convention are social conservatives. Like it or not, he cannot ignore them - not just because they are a majority in San Diego, but because no candidate can afford to alienate his activists. Certainly, shades of difference exist between purists who place moral issues first, and the pragmatists like Reed who know full well that if centrist voters are scared off, Dole cannot win. But for the moment, skilfully nudged by President Clinton, those vital centrists are scared stiff.

What makes his predicament all the more poignant now is that, on paper, Dole is the ideal man to bridge the gap. He is a conservative, true, but of an older school, a decent man sceptical of dogma, tempered by hard times and by common sense. Ideologically, if not by background, he resembles his predecessor as nominee, George Bush. Like the patrician Bush, Dole has always been suspected by Reaganite true believers and the religious right. As his poll ratings have nosedived, both camps have fantasised about a Dump Dole effort. The question neither has answered, and which illustrates the depth of the Republican divide, is: If not Dole, who?

Under Republican rules, of course, a coup is impossible. But suppose Mr Dole quit voluntarily, or fell under a San Diego bus. Who could take his place? Certainly not Newt Gingrich, architect of the Contract with America, and now the single most unpopular politician in America. Nor even a partially mellowing Pat Buchanan, who, having won 3 million votes in the primaries and now the battle of the platform, is muttering about endorsing Mr Dole, assuming a suitably pro-life vice-presidential nominee was found.

But the religious right would never wear a General Powell, or a moderate pro-choice Governor like Christine Whitman of New Jersey, William Weld of Massachusetts, or Pete Wilson of California. Which leaves either some little-known senator, or a retread grandee from the Bush administration like James Baker. Or, and perhaps most broadly acceptable, the popular former Housing Secretary and passionate supply-sider Jack Kemp - whom Mr Dole has in fact been seriously considering as his running-mate.

But even then the extremism problem will remain. Quite apart from the deal on abortion, whose only merit is to avoid the PR disaster of a public floorfight, the platform is a social conservative wish-list. On issues from immigration to school choice (abolish the federal Department of Education in its entirety), from gays to foreign policy (no US troops under UN command), the right has prevailed. True, convention platforms are traditionally forgotten by Labor Day, when the campaign begins in earnest, and for a moment next week at least, the quarrelling of the spring and summer will be put aside.

But Bob Dole is caught in a nightmarish trap. He is too weak in the polls to impose unity on his party; yet every day that public disunity persists, that weakness increases. True, victorious American political parties have often seen bizarre bedfellows; none more so than Franklin Roosevelt's Democrat coalition of blacks, blue-collar whites and the segregationist yet viscerally anti-Republican South. But an iron-clad rule obtains. Break those coalitions apart, and the party loses. Lyndon Johnson's civil rights programme cost the Democrats the Old South, and Republicans won five of the next six Presidential elections.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater seemed to do the same for Republicans when he humiliated the "Rockefeller Republicans" and the party's old Eastern establishment at the convention, only to be branded an extremist and subsequently routed in the general election against Johnson. But Goldwater's was a defeat with a difference. From his political ashes arose the new Republican party: Southern-slanted and suburban, ideologically conservative. That battle is being replayed today. Dole, Kansan by birth but East Coast Washington politico to his fingertips, is representative of a vanishing breed. This time, the social conservatives and religious right may drag him down to crushing defeat. But if history is any guide, for better or worse the Republican future is theirs.