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DESPITE NEW YORK REPUBLICANS' ENDORSEMENT, DOLE IS NO SHOO-IN

It was picture perfect diversity, and therein may lie the heart of Bob Dole's problem.

One after another, members of the House Republican delegation from New York, left, right and center, stepped up to the microphone and made glowing remarks about the presidential prospects of the Senate majority leader.

Their endorsements, following ones by Gov. Pataki and state officials, made it unanimous: The New York State Republican Party, such as it is, is for Dole.

Amory Houghton Jr. of Corning was beaming. He reminded the reporters gathered in Dole's national headquarters that in 1988 he alone in the delegation backed Dole against Vice President Bush.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-Utica, a liberal, said he likes Dole because he has "tolerance for the other person's point of view." Rep. Benjamin Gilman of Middletown, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, another liberal, intoned the memory of 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie.

Someone else invoked the memory of Nelson Rockefeller, the four-time governor of New York, who mounted and aborted presidential campaigns in 1964 and 1968.

The connections between Dole and Willkie, "the barefoot boy from Wall Street," and Rockefeller weren't clear. Maybe the links were subliminal. The two dead New Yorkers were presidential losers, and they symbolized the despised Wall Street liberal wing of the party.

Jack Quinn of Hamburg said he is "from Buffalo," representing the most Democratic congressional district held by a Republican. Quinn, struggling to straddle this poor district and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, offered some thoughts about how Buffalo "knows it needs less government."

Does it, really?

No one said anything about Dole's being the godfather one of the worst black holes of official secrecy, big government and corporate welfare -- the corrupt farm subsidy program.

Diversity entered the room with the endorsement of conservative Bill Paxon of Amherst, chair of the House GOP campaign. Later, Paxon said "Bob Dole has a long and distinguished conservative voting record."

Nothing Paxon said betrayed the likelihood that he and fellow conservative Gerald B.F. Solomon of Glens Falls, chairman of the House Rules Committee, had to swallow very hard in going down the line so early for Dole.

All this event did was showcase the clout of Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., Pataki's patron, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and head of the Senate GOP campaign.

It did not move Dole one inch closer to the presidency.

Dole's problem has nothing to do with endorsements. It is the senator himself and the situation in which he finds himself.

He lost three campaigns for national office: 1976 as President Ford's running mate, and in 1980 and 1988 bids for the top nomination.

He has to rearrange his political face. Dole is having real problems redefining himself. He has no position on abortion. Last week, he reversed himself twice on homosexuals and the military.

A week after trying to look moderate by trashing the House Republican welfare bill, Dole bid for the junkyard dog vote by urging repeal of the assault weapons ban.

Some conservatives are losing patience with Dole's failure to move the Senate's majority toward the House Contract with America.

"Watching the Senate is like watching paint dry," said Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, whose Feb. 12 caucus is the first test of presidential muscle. Nussle, head of the House GOP transition task force, said Dole "has to go to Iowa" and his "record will resonate with me." Dole's performance on the contract "will have a bearing" on how Iowans view Dole's 1996 quest for the White House.

"Iowans want to stand for something," Nussle said, with a touch of irritation.

Someone whose conservative credentials have never been in doubt is Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. Gramm knows who he is. Lacking Ronald Reagan's warm personality, he, like Reagan, is strongly pro-life. Reagan carried New York twice when the Democratic Party was a lot stronger than it is now.

Gramm will not have to carry the political insider baggage that the D'Amato organization unavoidably imposes on Dole, a 35-year veteran of the Congress.

Gramm backs the House contract to the hilt. He will have Texas in his pocket, and is not not ceding New York to Dole. Tonight in New York, Gramm be honored at a $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser in the Waldorf Astoria's Empire Room.

The people who set up this affair are no slouches: Lew Lehrman, National Review president Dusty Rhodes, Ford administration cabinet member Bill Simon, and high ranking brass from American Express, J.P. Morgan, Chemical Bank, and Nomura Holding Co.

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