It's the beginning of May, six whole months before the presidential election, the party conventions haven't even been held yet, and some pundits and conservatives are already writing off Bob Dole's candidacy.
Perhaps they are a tad premature. Yes, some recent polls show Senator Dole trailing President Clinton by as much as 20 percent, although internal GOP polls show the deficit closer to 10 percent. And according to PoliticsUSA, the National Journal's Internet page, in the more significant electoral-college vote Clinton leads in states that have 352 votes while Dole has 138 votes, as of May 2.
But it's still mighty early. At this time in 1992, George Bush had an 18 percent lead over Clinton. Dole is still recovering from a bruising primary fight in which he was the main target of the other contenders. And the Democrats have run almost 14,000 television ads since January in targeted markets around the country, further skewing the poll numbers.
Part of the problem is that the GOP primary contest finished in late March, and political observers, all geared up for the campaign, have a lot of time on their hands with little to write about. At the same time many Republicans, alarmed at the beating they are taking, are antsy and want to fight back. They criticize the Dole campaign for disorganization and supposed inability to frame a message.
In a way, Dole is a victim of his own success. His plan - the "Rotunda strategy" - was to use the bully pulpit of Senate majority leader to engineer votes on bills that Clinton would veto, thereby drawing a clear distinction between the two candidates. But Senate Democrats have found a stick to put in Dole's spokes: the Senate rules.
The Senate may be the world's oldest deliberative body, but it is surely also the slowest. The ability of one senator to gum up the works is a mystery to most outside the upper house. A determined minority of 40 can hold things up even more (the filibuster), preventing the cutting off of debate to allow a vote. With 47 votes, the Democrats can make plenty of mischief for Dole (as Dole and Newt Gingrich did for Clinton pre-1994). Current example: the minimum-wage issue.
Dole's other difficulty is that the resources and attention an incumbent Senate majority leader can command are formidable indeed, but pale in comparison with what a well-oiled White House can gin up. A naval analogy might be a face-off between an aircraft carrier and a submarine. Either has the potential to win, but the carrier has a lot more options and flash.
The GOP now confronts some key decisions:
*Democratic tactics and the apparent lack of any Dole campaign plan have led many Republicans to suggest that the senator give up his leadership position and concentrate on running for president. The senator seems loath to do so.
*Republicans are debating whether the party should spend some of its war chest on ads supporting Dole now, to counter the Democrat and labor-union ad blitz, or conserve resources until fall, when the public is more likely to pay attention. Meanwhile, they're using the gas tax issue to regain the offensive.
*The GOP must decide who shall lead: Dole or House Republicans. The House GOP is far more conservative and combative than Dole, who is more inclined to cut deals and compromise when possible. The struggle is reflected in the public sniping this week between New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and House Speaker Gingrich. To win the White House, Dole needs a coherent message to the voters; his risk is that House conservatives will create unneeded static and confuse the issues.
Any analyst who studies swings in voter sentiment realizes that Dole and the Republicans still have a good chance at winning in November. But a lot will depend on making the right moves in these decisions.