Florida Straw Poll Could Put GOP Ducks in a Row

Dole hopes to secure front-runner spot, battle is on for No. 2

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WEARING two hats may never be trickier for Bob Dole.

Candidate Dole wears one hat. The straw poll here tomorrow gives Mr. Dole the chance to secure his position as the undisputed front-runner in the race for the GOP presidential nomination now that Colin Powell isn't running.

Senate majority leader Dole wears the other. And Senator Dole is embroiled in the most bitter budget stalemate Washington has seen in years.

Senator Dole is obligated to help find a way for the government to reopen its doors. Yet, if he were to compromise with the White House and head for Florida, candidate Dole would be vulnerable to criticism that he abandoned the party's principles, particularly in regard to balancing the budget.

Dole's dilemma is one reason the vote here is so important. After a poor showing in the Iowa straw poll, Dole has campaigned hard in Florida - a bellwether Southern state. It is the last stop before the primary season starts next February.

For Dole and the rest of the GOP field, a good showing in Florida could provide a much needed boost to their campaigns and fund-raising efforts heading into the primaries.

If Dole remains a lackluster front-runner, will Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia jump into the race? Will second-tier candidates Pat Buchanan, Lamar Alexander, or Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas break from the pack? Will others drop out?

''It's all on the line for Bob Dole,'' says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. ''Dole has to do as well as everyone expects him to do. For the others, it's a question of whether they'll be players.''

Key state for GOP

Florida is an important state for this field of Republican candidates. Senator Gramm and former Tennessee Governor Alexander are counting on a strong base in the South. Pat Buchanan hopes to show that his appeal reaches beyond early-bird states Iowa and New Hampshire, where he is better known.

The results will be more trustworthy than the high-profile straw poll in Iowa last August. There, candidates were able to bus participants in from out of state. Here, delegates are chosen county by county, and must pay their own way to Orlando.

If none of these three draw a strong second tomorrow, they may have trouble making the case to potential contributors that they are viable candidates. A poor showing would be particularly damaging to Gramm, who has focused on winning straw polls across the country to gain credibility.

Campaigning here has reflected the stakes involved. The camps have marshalled more financial and personal resources than they did for the Iowa straw poll. And they've taken the gloves off.

In one mailing, Gramm digs deep to find Alexander's ''ethical problems'': ''Incidents such as pelting out-of-state cars with snowballs earned Alexander at least two paddlings in school.''

If the rest of the pack is slinging mud to try to survive, Dole faces some long-term problems of his own, no matter what the outcome of the voting Saturday. The GOP has won Florida in every presidential contest since 1980. Although party registration numbers are higher for Democrats, the cross-over factor gives Republicans the edge.

But Dole's figures against President Clinton can't give the party much comfort. In a survey by the Mason-Dixon Florida Poll released this week, Dole beats Clinton by only 7 percentage points. The same survey found that slightly more than one-third of those asked would vote to reelect Clinton.

''Dole is hardly a superstar here,'' says Robert Joffee, director of the Mason-Dixon Florida Poll. If he wins the straw poll, ''Dole changes from being the front-runner to the likely GOP nominee without becoming a superstar.''

Polls across the country continue to suggest the same problem for the GOP: It may end up choosing a nominee that can't beat Clinton. That is why Dole's primary opponent tomorrow is high expectations, Mr. Schneider says.

Will Newt run?

''Bob Dole has to kick-start his campaign,'' he says. ''If Dole is upset or does worse than expected, there will be pressure on Newt Gingrich to reconsider.''

And that, he says, would spell trouble for the Republican Party. Gingrich would weaken Dole even further, but because he is so unpopular he might end up losing the revolution he started on Capitol Hill.

Nelson Warfield, spokesman for the Dole campaign, shrugs off such speculation. ''Our task is to deliver a strong message and show we're the front-runner for a reason,'' he says. ''We have the luxury to watch the rest fight for the silver medal.''

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