THE FRONT-END loading of the primaries has given the Republican victor, Sen. Bob Dole, ample time to prepare his campaign against President Clinton and to control the Republican National Convention for that purpose.
The issue before him is crystal-clear: Should he cater to the Republican faithful who supported his more doctrinaire conservative opponents for the nomination, or appeal to the broad center of American opinion?
If he does the first, he garners the enthusiasm of the true believers but risks alienating the floating voters who dictate every November outcome.
If the second, he loses the donations and energies of the best campaign workers and risks subversion by a third-party campaign of Buchananites on the right.
To see the dilemma is not to solve it. Britain's Labor Party knew why it stayed in the wilderness. The Democratic Party of McGovern and Dukakis understood why it lost. The Republicans who went down with Barry Goldwater in 1964 saw it coming.
The quick answer for Mr. Dole is to have it both ways. Anyone in his position would try. But on many issues, he will be forced to choose. Opponents will see to it.
This concern will inform Mr. Dole's positions on issues, including abortion, where double-talk gets him only so far. He will have to pronounce on the assault-rifle ban, protection versus free trade, the U.S. role in Bosnia, affirmative action, immigration, gay rights, medical care.
The dilemma will inform his management of the San Diego convention. Four years ago, President Bush was safely in charge of his own re-election campaign and let the right play at the convention. The divisive stridence of speaker after speaker -- Pat Buchanan and Marilyn Quayle were memorable -- opened the gate for Democratic outsider Bill Clinton's upset victory.
The running-mate quandary
Now Mr. Dole will have to make the same decision knowing only that, in hindsight, Mr. Bush's toleration backfired in 1992. That does not prove that squelching the right this year would work better.
The third area where this dilemma must inform the senator's actions is in the choice of a running mate.
As a 73-year-old in July, he must go for presidentiality, more than a younger nominee must. One set of experts is telling Mr. Dole to pick Gen. Colin Powell, the Republican most acceptable to Democrats.
Another insists on someone safely conservative on abortion, welfare reform and gun rights, to hold the coalition together.
As a senator, Mr. Dole might be tempted by a governor, particularly the Catholic conservative governors of the rust-belt Midwest, or the female fiscal conservative from New Jersey.
Having his act together will not guarantee Senator Dole victory in November. President Clinton must also lose. This could come from an economic collapse, foreign-policy disaster or smoking gun in some scandal.
Senator D'Amato would then become the most powerful political boss in American history, having created the New York governor and the president and kept a Senate seat for himself.
Meanwhile, the nominee-presumptive has finally shoved the upstart Speaker Newt Gingrich aside as the leader of Republicans in Congress.
For the rest of the year, every maneuver between the Republican Congress and Democratic president will be for electoral advantage -- and not about the merits of the issue or the good of the country. The nation lives with that every four years.
Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 3/30/96