SEN. BOB DOLE is 72 years old in a nation that worships youth. He talks in rasping, disconnected phrases that can't compare to the sweet glibness of former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander or the articulate demagoguery of TV celebrity Pat Buchanan. He knows what it is to have been born poor and yet, after a lifetime of public service, suffer the barbs of millionaire Steve Forbes.
His fighting instincts so drive the senator that he stoops sometimes to imitating the economic nonsense of Mr. Buchanan or to matching Forbes attack ads in kind. There is a dark cloud in his personality, perhaps the result of ferocious wounds suffered in World War II, that does not register well with voters seeking feel-good leaders. He is subject to taunts of inconsistency for a legislative voting record that reflects -- as it should -- the changing tides of a turbulent nation.
A veteran of Congress, and majority leader of the Senate, Mr. Dole knows how essential are consensus and compromise to the functioning of a huge and varied democracy. A measure of the man is the respect he enjoys within the Senate, a most discriminating institution, and in the backing he has received from most of the nation's Republican governors and legislators.
Bob Dole is rightly suspicious of facile gimmicks, like Mr. Forbes' flat tax or Mr. Alexander's flannel shirt. Above all, he is viscerally uncomfortable with the authoritarian instincts and rabble-rousing of Mr. Buchanan.
Mr. Dole is what the hard-right says he is -- a man of the political center, a mainstreamer, a moderate. During the Reagan era, he resisted the excesses of the supply-sider crusade and sought, at some personal cost, to slow the plunge into deficit financing. He has also been a restraining influence on the Gingrich revolution in the House of Representatives, often acting as its referee with the Clinton White House.
One question for Republicans is whether Mr. Dole can win in November. Another, just as pertinent, is whether Mr. Buchanan or Mr. Alexander or Mr. Forbes would do any better. President Clinton is registering well in public opinion polls against all his would-be challengers. The economy is in pretty good shape. Foreign policy presents no immediate crisis or disaster. And while Republicans cut up one another in a rough primary campaign, the president coasts uncontested to renomination.
Yet in the fall general election, Mr. Clinton should be challenged effectively on a multiplicity of issues. For this task, Senator Dole is easily the class of the field in the March 5 Maryland Republican primary. The Sun endorses him.