DESPITE his critics' questions about his shortcomings and his ability to win a general election, Senate majority leader Bob Dole has all but locked up the Republican presidential nod. It's not so much that Senator Dole's strength is so overwhelming, as it is that history is so strongly in his favor and his opposition is so weak.
Republicans almost always nominate a known quantity. In the 10 presidential elections between 1956 and 1992, every GOP nod save one went to either a sitting president, a current or former vice president, or someone who had run for president or had previously been the party's vice-presidential nominee. Five sitting presidents won the nomination: Dwight Eisenhower (1956), Richard Nixon (1972), Gerald Ford (1976), Ronald Reagan (1984), and George Bush (1992). Sitting vice presidents won the nod in two elections, Nixon in 1960 and Bush in 1988. In 1968 Nixon was a twofer, a former vice president who had run for president. Bush was also a twofer, a sitting vice president who had run for president in 1980. When he ran in 1980, Reagan had run for president in 1968 and against Ford in 1976. That leaves a single exception to the known-quantity rule: Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964.
This pattern - which, by the way, doesn't apply to Democrats, who nominated "name brands" in only six of the last 10 elections - suggests that GOP voters prefer nominees with whom they are familiar and comfortable. They are not risk-takers looking for fresh faces or new ideas.
The second factor to consider is money. Seven of the last eight major party presidential nominations have gone to the candidates who raised the most money during the year prior to the actual election year. Since 1980, the only candidate who raised the most money during the odd-numbered, or "out-year" and didn't win his party's nod was former Texas Gov. John Connally (R), who outraised Reagan in 1979 but still lost the 1980 nomination to him. While one can argue that this reflects the truism that money follows power and that donors gravitate toward the candidate they think will win, it also shows the importance of early money. Today early money is more important than ever before: So many big states with large blocks of GOP convention delegates have moved their primary dates forward in order to have a greater say in the outcome. Once the GOP race moves beyond Iowa on Feb. 12 and New Hampshire on Feb. 20, little time will remain for anything but campaigning.
Based on these two factors, Dole looks strong. He's a known quantity with higher favorable ratings than anyone else in the field. Other than Dole, only commentator Pat Buchanan meets the test, and a brief look at the polls shows that Buchanan can't win the GOP nomination.
As for money, Dole leaves the other candidates, save Steve Forbes, in the dust. In the next few days, the campaigns will be releasing their fund-raising and spending figures for '95, and Dole's lead will be astonishing. Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, the two who seem best positioned to knock off Dole, have seen their early fund-raising efforts pretty much dry up. Any breaks that either is likely to see probably wouldn't convert into useable dollars in time to mount a comeback. While Forbes has the money, the comfort factor among voters just isn't there, and his single-issue, flat-tax-based campaign doesn't resonate with enough GOP voters.
Sure, politics is a business in which anything can happen and often does. President Clinton's decision to send US peacekeeping forces to Bosnia, begrudgingly supported by Dole, could suddenly reap Dole horrible losses, or serious concerns over his age (72) could surface. As it stands now, however, the nomination is his to lose.