Dole wins Midwest, nomination Primary sweep puts GOP senator over the top

Third time's a charm

Candidate subdued in victory, awaits Calif. next week

Campaign 1996

March 20, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Finally realizing a dream that had eluded him for nearly two decades, Bob Dole put a mathematical lock on the 1996 Republican presidential nomination last night with a four-state Midwest primary sweep.

His victories in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin gave the 72-year-old senator enough delegates to put him over the top, setting the stage for a showdown this fall with President Clinton and, quite possibly, billionaire Ross Perot.

"I think it's safe to say now that I will be the nominee," declared Mr. Dole, who ran unsuccessfully for his party's nomination in 1980 and 1988 and was on the losing side in 1976 as President Gerald Ford's running mate.

Characteristically, the Kansan appeared less than ebullient after having scaled the highest peak in a lengthy political career that stretches back to the years immediately after World War II. Smiling only occasionally, he delivered brief, prepared remarks to a rally of supporters at a Washington hotel, flanked by wife, Elizabeth, and his daughter, Robin.

On the advice of campaign aides, Mr. Dole stopped short of actually claiming that he had secured the nomination. "California, here we come," he told supporters. "California will be a big one. It'll take us over the top, way over the top."

His strategists wanted him to wait until next Tuesday to declare himself the nominee, after an expected primary victory in California, the nation's biggest electoral prize. A new statewide poll released yesterday shows Mr. Dole trailing President Clinton badly there, and Dole campaign advisers in California have urged him to generate more excitement around his candidacy.

However, clinching the nomination is merely a formality, more a matter of symbolism than anything else. Mr. Dole effectively wrapped up the nomination two weeks ago and has thoroughly vanquished his last significant rival, Patrick J. Buchanan, who last night reiterated his determination to keep his candidacy alive until the convention this August.

In Michigan, where Mr. Buchanan concentrated his efforts over the past week, he won the blue-collar suburbs around Detroit and picked up one-third of the statewide vote, his best showing of the primary season. He gained a similar share in Wisconsin, where he carried working-class neighborhoods around Milwaukee with his appeals on trade and other job issues.

In Illinois and Ohio, Mr. Buchanan didn't do as well , pulling less than one-fourth of the vote. Yesterday's primaries marked the first head-to-head contest between the two since Steve Forbes quit last week.

By locking up the nomination, Mr. Dole won a contested presidential race earlier than any candidate in modern times. He also did it just one month after being knocked off his front-runner's perch, in New Hampshire, by Mr. Buchanan.

"It's all happened very quickly," Mr. Dole said yesterday. "I mean, here it is I don't think President Bush wrapped it up this early in '88 or '92."

In fact, it was not until the Pennsylvania primary, in late April, that Mr. Bush laid claim to the nomination in those years. But the comparison means little today, because of radical changes in the primary system.

Many states advanced the date of their primary, in an effort to let more voters have a role in picking the nominee. Instead, the result was to bring the race to an end more quickly, by creating a system that "favors someone who's well-known and well-organized and well-financed," as Mr. Dole pointed out yesterday.

The senator's string of 22 primary victories in March seems to have erased the pain of his early setbacks this year. "Part of our strategy, of course, early on, was to lose New Hampshire," he joked to reporters yesterday.

Some of the negative impressions that formed in the public's mind during the early stages of the campaign also seem to be vanishing. The latest national polls show Mr. Dole closing the gap with Mr. Clinton, who leads by about 10 points in head-to-head matchups.

But even as the senator prepared to lay claim to the nomination, Mr. Perot was sending fresh signals yesterday that he is once again ready to run for president. Mr. Dole, in interviews last night, expressed concern about a Perot candidacy, which many politicians, including the senator, believe would help Mr. Clinton by siphoning votes away from the Republican ticket.

Mr. Dole contended that he and the Republican majority in Congress are in sync with the legislative goals of the Texan and his Reform Party.

"Ross, what else do you want?" Mr. Dole said on CNN. He added that he didn't know whether the Texas billionaire, as the third man in a general election contest, "gets 19 percent [as he did in the 1992 election] or 9 percent."

With the nomination race now over, Mr. Dole also is turning his attention to the Republican convention this August and the search for a running mate, a particularly important task for the man who would be the oldest ever to become president.

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