Bob Dole was poised Monday for a romp in the primaries of the industrial Midwest, a region sure to be a major battleground in this fall’s race against President Clinton.
With his nomination as the Republican presidential candidate all but wrapped up, the Kansas senator spent much of the last week touring the four Midwest states that go to the polls today, testing themes for the general election.
“Mr. President, if you want a real balanced budget, if you want to make fundamental changes … I’m willing to sit down with you anytime you’re serious,” Dole said at a state Capitol rally Monday in Springfield, Ill.
But he said that the only thing he had learned from budget talks with Clinton was that “we ought to have a new president.”
Dole’s major GOP challenger, Pat Buchanan, has vowed to push his campaign on to the Republican National Convention this August in San Diego, Calif. But, as even Buchanan acknowledges, the race is all but over.
After Dole’s sweep of the seven Super Tuesday primaries a week ago, he now has 782 of the 996 delegates needed for the nomination. Buchanan has only 86, with slim prospects of picking up many more during the primaries today in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.
Public opinion polls in all four states show Dole with overwhelming leads. He could lock up the nomination with a sweep Tuesday of the Midwest and certainly with a win in California on March 26.
At stake in today’s “Big 10” primaries are 219 delegates: 67 in Ohio, 57 in Michigan, 36 in Wisconsin and 59 in Illinois, where 10 more at-large delegates will be chosen later.
With Dole so heavily favored, Buchanan is talking more these days about his campaign as a cause, not about defeating Dole for the nomination.
“We’re going to fight until hell freezes over, and then we’re going to fight on the ice,” he told his supporters again over the weekend. “So bring your ice skates to San Diego.”
Buchanan is expected to do best in Michigan, where his tough-trade, pro-jobs message has some resonance and the party rules allow a proportional distribution of delegates based on the results of the statewide voting. Ohio and Wisconsin have winner-take-all rules, and Illinois has direct election of delegates by congressional district.
“We’re going to have a good day Tuesday,” predicted Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, who is Dole’s state chairman. “This probably is the most united I’ve seen the party in a long time. Everybody is coalesced behind Bob Dole.”
But the general election is likely to be much tougher. Four years ago, the Democratic president carried all four states voting today. And should Ross Perot run again as an independent, it could be even more difficult for Dole.