WITH crunch time in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination only weeks away, the also-rans - which means everybody but Sen. Bob Dole - are generally looking a little desperate.
They've spent millions on ads and picked at countless banquet dinners. They've slogged through mountains of New Hampshire snow, and visited more Iowa pig farms than they ever dreamed could exist. Their progress so far: not much. Majority leader Dole of Kansas continues to breeze along with a 40-point lead in the polls. No other candidate has even emerged as a clear second-place challenger.
Politics is a volatile enterprise, and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, or even publisher Steve Forbes could still suddenly bolt from the pack and nip at Dole's heels. But they need to make their move soon, as the Iowa caucuses are on Feb. 12, and the New Hampshire primary is Feb. 20. Any candidate who performs poorly in these contests risks becoming a minor footnote to history.
This year, the GOP delegate selection process "is front-loaded so much," says James Pfiffner, professor of government at George Mason University. "You need to make headway fast."
Not that the pack doesn't recognize its plight. In recent weeks, a number of second-tier candidates have begun harshly attacking Dole, in a next-to-last ditch effort to bring his poll numbers down before it's too late.
Millionaire magazine owner Steve Forbes has been a leader of the pile-on-Dole bunch. His TV ads depicting the Senate majority leader as a Washington insider who is not a true GOP conservative have helped vault him into a distant second in the race, in some polls. Mr. Forbes's promotion of a flat tax in tax-averse New Hampshire may be the largest reason for his movement, however - along with the fact that he is spending millions of his own money to spread his message.
Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, whose campaign is struggling to gain traction as it heads into the race's opening events, is the most recent and most vociferous of Dole's attackers.
His main theme is that in recent budget negotiations Sen. Dole has proved too eager for compromise and too quick to cave to President Clinton's positions. A new Gramm TV commercial accuses Dole of "abandoning House Republicans" in Washington's budget wars; it also raises the prospect that Dole may be vulnerable to defeat by Clinton in November.
Even former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, the self-described "turtle in a flannel shirt" who counts on creeping up slowly in the polls, has started slinging a little mud. In a recent speech to a conservative group in Washington, Mr. Alexander said Dole would almost certainly lose to Clinton - and that he was the wrong generation (read "too old") to lead the country, besides.
One problem with this going-negative strategy is that Dole's role in recent budget talks appears to have boosted his standing in the country at large, and against Mr. Clinton in particular. A recent USA Today/CNN poll found Dole leading Clinton 49 percent to 46 percent. Three weeks ago a similar poll had found Dole almost 10 points behind.
"The biggest threat to Dole's nomination has been the fact that he looked like a loser against Clinton. What he had to do was moderate his positions to send his poll numbers up, and to a certain extent he's done that," notes Stephen Wayne, a Georgetown University professor and author of a recent book about the political road to the White House.
Initially, the president was strengthened by the budget impasse, which allowed him to position himself as the defender of Medicare and Medicaid. But the moment the shutdown ended and Clinton walked into a room to negotiate further, more people perceived him as part of the problem and his poll numbers dipped, according to Mr. Wayne.
Not that today's Dole vs. Clinton polls are anything other than the flimsiest of indicators about what will happen in November. Professor Wayne says, somewhat jokingly, that Clinton's chances for reelection may actually be tied to how well the United States teams perform in the coming Olympics. "If we lose to countries we've never heard of, voters will be going, 'What's wrong with America?' " says Wayne. "Clinton better root hard for our team."
IF the budget standoff continues, both Clinton and the eventual Republican nominee may be hurt. "It would help a third-party candidate, potentially," judges Claiborne Darden Jr., a Georgia-based political pollster.
One interesting aspect of this political season, after all, has been the way the public's interest in candidates from outside the big parties has risen and fallen. When retired Gen. Colin Powell declined to enter politics, many were disappointed - but by the same token, Ross Perot's new Reform Party has struggled to get the signatures it needs to list itself on the ballot in many states. Most recently, it fell just short of making its signature goal in Maine.
Perhaps by delivering Congress into the control of Republicans, US voters have slated their thirst for large political change. One hint that further political revolution may not be in the cards: In off-year 1995 voting, Virginia voters decided to keep control of their state legislature in Democratic hands, despite pleas from GOP Gov. George Allen that they build on the national Republican gains.