RUPERT CORNWELL Washington
For Bob Dole, that Captain Ahab among modern-day Republicans, the obsessive quest of almost two decades is nearly over. In politics, of course, nothing is ever absolutely certain. But, barring calamity, his party's presidential nomination, the great white whale of his ambition, is his for the taking.
In a life studded with bitter failures - few more bitter than his failed races for the White House in 1980 and 1988 - and in which nothing has come easily, Tuesday evening was surely one of the sweetest moments. Damned as a Washington insider, derided for his feeble campaigning and half written- off by the chattering classes only 10 days before, Mr Dole was a winner, and how.
The results were devastating: a primary sweep, an eight-for- eight night in baseball parlance, in which Mr Dole never dropped below 40 per cent and Pat Buchanan, his closest rival, not once exceeded 29 per cent. Mostly the margins were far wider: 55 to 20 over the publisher Steve Forbes in Connecticut, 53 to 21 over Mr Buchanan in Maryland and 67 to 20 per cent over Lamar Alexander in Rhode Island.
In presidential races, these are knockout blows. At this point only a monumental blunder or (less improbable) an incident raising grave doubts about his age or health, can deprive him of the prize, and Mr Dole's every opponent knows it. Even Mr Buchanan, rightly assailing the Senate majority leader for running a campaign that was "clueless, just an endless series of cliches," acknowledges his victory "seems inevitable".
Even before the New England polls had closed on Tuesday, Senator Dick Lugar, who never made it out of single figures, bowed to the inevitable. Two hours later, well before complete results were available, Mr Alexander called it quits, returning from Florida to Nashville, in his native Tennessee, to make it official.
And by mid-morning yesterday it seemed Mr Forbes could be joining them. Cancelling his stump schedule in upstate New York, the publishing magnate, who has lavished $25m (pounds 16.6m) of his own money on his campaign, convened an afternoon press conference to make "an important announcement". Aides would not confirm he was leaving the race; others said it would be a joint appearance with Jack Kemp, the popular New York Republican who shares Mr Forbes's passion for a flat tax.
But, whatever the decision, further pursuit of the nomination looks futile. After his rout on the supposedly friendly turf of wealthy Connecticut, Mr Forbes had New York's primary today as his last realistic chance to reverse the tide. But a new poll shows Mr Dole had widened his lead in the Empire State, with 48 per cent to 18 per cent for his closest rival. And this pattern will surely continue. Shorn of their candidate of choice, Lugar and Alexander supporters, cut from the same moderate cloth as Dole voters, will switch their allegiance to today's overwhelming favourite.
With the contest proper all but over, it is another question which torments Republicans: how will Mr Buchanan handle his defeat? In interviews yesterday he seemed to rule out an independent candidacy, which would split the party, and hinted that for an acceptable price (platform concessions perhaps, or a keynote speaking slot at the San Diego convention) he would swing behind Mr Dole.
"I'm not going to do anything to help Bill Clinton get re-elected," the chastened but unbowed outsider said. But the "cause" will continue. "We do have a peasant army, we live off the land and we're going all the way." Thus 1996 has become a curious replica of 1992. Then it was Mr Buchanan against the establishment candidate (and sitting President) George Bush. Today, Bob Dole is the establishment's man. Just as four years ago, Mr Buchanan's conservative populism attracts everywhere 25 to 30 per cent - but no more.
And the Republican nightmare is of another all-too- possible parallel with 1992: a harsh and divisive Buchanan speech in San Diego that only cements the party's image of intolerance and division, making it easy prey for Mr Clinton in the autumn. But Mr Buchanan cannot be ignored. Not only are the fear and resentment he voices, over disappearing jobs and corporate greed, shared by tens of millions of voters; he also represents a magnet for the 20 per cent of the electorate which went for Ross Perot in 1992, sealing Mr Bush's fate in the process.
For the moment, however, the Dole juggernaut rolls on. With Tuesday's sweep he has raised his delegate total to 276, far ahead of Mr Forbes's 69 and the 51 pledged to Mr Buchanan, and over a quarter of the 996 needed to win. More will come in New York, which sends 102 delegates to San Diego, and on "Super Tuesday" next week, when 362 are at stake.
As if his triumph was not overpowering enough already, Mr Dole yesterday tightened his grip on the two "mega-states" which vote on 12 March by securing the endorsements of George Bush Jr, the popular Governor of Texas, and his brother Jeb, leader of the Republicans in Florida. Their father too was expected to back Mr Dole. After 1992, if there is one man a Bush cannot abide, it is Pat Buchanan.
At his victory party, yesterday's flailing Republican candidate had already become Dole the nominee, with Bill Clinton, not Pat Buchanan, in his sights. Unity was his watchword: "We've proved the Republican party is not splitting apart, we've found a leader to bring the party together, I will be proud to carry that banner."
But now is also time to shed Ahab's mantle. True, the Captain caught up with Moby Dick, only for the harpooned whale to smash his boat, dragging Ahab down to disaster with him. Such, Republicans pray, will not be the fate of Captain Dole and the their party, against Mr Clinton in November.
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