WASHINGTON -- The immediate verdict on Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's failure to push through a welfare reform bill before the summer recess seems to be, as the New York Times put it in its lead story, "a major setback" for him.
But his decision to let the Senate go home for a few weeks and meanwhile keep negotiating with Democrats and Republican critics of his bill may serve chiefly to enhance his reputation as a deft legislator -- and presidential candidate.
Inside the Washington Beltway, where every twist and turn on important legislation is examined and dissected like a frog in a high school biology lab, Dole's inability to bring recalcitrant moderate and ultraconservative fellow Republicans aboard his bill, and budge Democratic opposition, may be cited as a demonstration of weakness.
The other Republicans challenging him for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination and not yet making a dent in his wide lead in the polls certainly hope that's the case.
That is most obviously so with Sen. Phil Gramm, who endlessly carps at Dole's brand of leadership, which out of years of experience in the Senate is to work for compromise rather than to fall on his sword.
Gramm never seems to miss an opportunity, in the tones of mean-spiritedness that he denies convey the real Phil Gramm, to question not only Dole's ideas but his motivations.
"There is," Gramm said when Dole pulled the welfare bill off the Senate floor, "a growing belief that when the majority leader brought up this bill, he never intended that it be finished. That was never a possibility, and the leadership must have known that."
Dole earlier had vowed to keep the Senate in session all this month to get passage.
But he relented when he judged that neither the Democrats nor Republicans with their own reform proposal were ready to strike a deal.
Politically speaking, if there hadn't been a Phil Gramm in the Republican presidential sweepstakes this year, Bob Dole might have done well to invent one.
On the one hand, Gramm's candidacy probably has been a factor in Dole's conspicuous and not altogether laudable lunge farther to the right on a range of litmus-test issues dear to the starboard side of his increasingly conservative party.
On the other hand, Gramm's rigidity coupled with his single-minded assault on such welfare beneficiaries as single teen-age mothers and their children makes Dole, previously regarded as the Dr. No of Republican politics, seem by comparison to be Mr. Reasonable.
While true believers of the Gingrich (and Gramm) revolution like freshman Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and like-minded House Republican frosh express impatience with Dole, he is coming across to many others as what he has always been, a man driven less by blind ideology than by achievement of the possible.
It may yet be that Dole's decision to take a break in the welfare debate until after Labor Day will not lead to a breakthrough with enough fellow Republicans and Democrats to pass welfare reform this year, or to override a presidential veto if it comes to that.
But the sounds coming from Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and moderate Republicans suggest there is a substantial possibility for fruitful compromise in the weeks ahead.
In all this, Dole has done a fair job so far keeping his notorious acid tongue in check -- a circumstance that no doubt distresses all the other Republican presidential hopefuls who pray daily that, figuratively anyway, he will slip on a banana peel and enable them to narrow his huge lead in the polls.
Dole would not be Dole, however, if he did not let his sharp edge show a bit from time to time.
Without naming Gramm, he observed the other day during the welfare debate that, "I have learned from experience. The bottom line is, how many votes do you have? It is not how many speeches do you make or how many times you criticize somebody else."
That is mild stuff, though, and it is the language of legislating.
Bob Dole may not have achieved welfare reform as swiftly as some would like, but he's working at it, and that fact isn't likely to hurt him as the Republican presidential front-runner, for all of Phil Gramm's bleating.