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Clinching The GOP Nomination In Sight For Dole On Midwest Primary Night

March 19, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Republican presidential nomination was within Bob Dole’s reach Tuesday as Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin held primaries that tested the front-runner’s Midwest appeal against weary rival Pat Buchanan.

There was no doubt that Dole was going to be the Republican nominee as the four Midwest battlegrounds took their turn on the primary calendar. The only question was whether he would win enough delegates to gain a mathematical lock Tuesday, or have to wait another week to officially claim the prize that has eluded him in two prior White House bids.

``It’s too early to tell,″ Dole said as he made his rounds at the Capitol, taking time off the campaign trail to craft a legislative agenda to help him in the fall showdown with President Clinton.

In a festive mood, the Senate majority leader joked with Virginia second-graders visiting the halls of Congress on a school field trip.

``I’ll let you know in November,″ Dole quipped when 8-year-old Mikey Crump asked what he could do to be president someday. And when one girl said she, too, wanted to be president, Dole turned to a classmate and asked, ``You want to be vice president?″

Dole had every reason to be in good spirits. Just a month ago, he lost New Hampshire to Buchanan and went on to lose three of the first five primaries. But he has roared back with an 18-0 primary record since, and added a couple of caucus victories to boot.

In addition, a national poll released Tuesday showed Dole moving to within eight points of Clinton in a head-to-head matchup.

But even as Dole had reason to be hopeful about his November prospects, there was fresh evidence the ballot could get more crowded. Ross Perot’s Reform Party was intensifying its efforts to qualify for presidential ballots _ and Perot himself said flatly that he would run and ``give it everything I have″ if drafted as its nominee.

Buchanan, for his part, headed straight from the heartland to the West Coast, hoping aloud that his tough immigration policies would bring a ``miracle in California.″ That primary, with the biggest single trove of delegates, is next Tuesday along with Nevada and Washington.

``We aren’t stopping anywhere,″ Buchanan said when asked if he would quit once Dole secured a mathematical lock on the nomination. ``This battle is going to continue.″

Still, there was little doubt the Dole victory streak that has driven others from the race was taking its toll on Buchanan. With a month between California’s primary and the next GOP contest, in Pennsylvania, Buchanan was counting the days to a break.

``We’ve got one week of hard campaigning and then I’m going to be home for awhile,″ he said.

At stake Tuesday were 67 delegates in Ohio, 59 in Illinois, 57 in Michigan and 36 in Wisconsin _ 219 in all. As he awaited the results, Dole had 796 delegates in The Associated Press count _ 200 short of the 996 necessary to clinch nomination. Buchanan, by comparison, had but 86 delegates.

If Dole fell short of clinching Tuesday, he would probably go over the top when Utah holds caucuses next Monday. Dole aides, while anxious to settle the nomination, had hoped to hold off the inevitable a little longer to allow California to cast the decisive votes of the primary season.

Clinton has a big lead over Dole in early California polling, and Dole advisers hope that generating excitement in the GOP primary there will make their candidate more competitive in the fall race.

Indeed, Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour was prepared to end his neutrality Tuesday night and declare Dole the party’s nominee. But Dole campaign manager Scott Reed asked Barbour to hold off because of concerns California would be anticlimactic.

Many Midwest voters already considered that to be the case.

``I’m not really happy with any of them,″ said Michigan’s Margaret Reutter, 68, who begrudgingly voted for Dole.

``I think he’s most experienced to do the job,″ was how Tom Hexamer of DeSoto, Ill., explained his Dole vote. Like many voters interviewed in the four states, he said retired Gen. Colin Powell was his first choice to share the ticket.

Buchanan’s best hope was Michigan, the only one of the four states that allocated its delegates in direct proportion to the results rather than on a winner-take-all basis.

___

Buchanan spent most of the past week in Michigan, trying to lure union members and other blue-collar workers to vote in the Republican primary by stressing his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

That was enough to get Buchanan the vote of Democrat Gary Powers, but the 60-year-old Michigan retiree said Clinton was his November choice.

``The economy is doing better,″ was his reason.

Dole all but ignored Buchanan in his Midwest campaigning, instead making his case against Clinton in states many strategists believe will determine the November outcome.

So confident was Dole about California that he wasn’t heading West until Friday, using his time until then to decide how to respond to Clinton’s new budget and to identify issues Republicans should push to the forefront.

Just a month ago, the Capitol was abuzz with talk that Dole’s New Hampshire defeat had doomed his candidacy. But as he triumphantly made the rounds there Tuesday, there were fresh reminders that his campaign comeback had tilted the balance of power in the Republican Party.

Last year, fresh from orchestrating the GOP House takeover, Speaker Newt Gingrich was the party’s driving force. Now he is all too happy to defer to Dole _ and serve as an eager surrogate against Clinton.

Criticizing Clinton’s record on taxes, crime and legal reform, Gingrich said the November election ``is going to be one of the most decisive days in American history.″

``What we have to say to the American people is simple: If you want to be amused by a very glib person who doesn’t succeed, you have a candidate,″ Gingrich said. ``If you want a president who resembles Dwight Eisenhower, not heroic verbally but heroic personally, then you have Bob Dole. You choose.″

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