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BOB DOLE, THE THIRD-PERSON candidate, has resigned his Senate seat to run for the presidency as "just a man."

Whether this is brilliant strategy or the desperate act of a politician drowning in the polls won't be known for certain until November. In the meantime, Americans who care about the democratic process should see a darker message in Dole's decision.It may not have been a coincidence that his surprise move came the day before House Republicans pushed through a budget containing some goals they failed to accomplish this fiscal year.

GOP leaders hope Bill Clinton will veto their latest plan to end the federal deficit by 2002. They think the president would be hard pressed to win re-election if he nixes $500 tax credits for parents of young children, a rollback in capital gains taxes and more welfare cuts.

After last year's success in painting Republicans as inhumane for wanting to cut health payments for the elderly, Clinton likely will try to seize the moral high ground again. But he may have exhausted that political capital as more people realize that Medicare costs must be contained.

The expected stalemate could cost the GOP more than it does the president in the polls, but at least Dole can claim immunity this time.

Dole is trying to position himself as a Washington outsider. In a sane world, that would be dismissed as posturing, but Americans will buy any brand of snake oil so long as it bears an anti-government label.

The real pity is that for most of his career, Bob Dole has represented his party's better qualities. Although a rock-solid conservative, he had the respect of both parties. He was extraordinarily skilled at salvaging stalled legislation. His recent embarrassments over repeal of the gasoline tax and the push for a higher minimum wage notwithstanding, Dole was the kind of leader Congress sorely needs.

Ironically, his failure to break the deadlock over those measures can be blamed as much on his own party as on the Democrats.

Compromise has become a dirty word in our political lexicon, but the ability to find the middle ground is an essential ingredient in any recipe for government. Americans know this instinctively, which is why recent polls indicate voters are disgusted with both parties.

Dole could not continue to lead the Senate unless he could persuade the Contract With America gang to soften their most extreme demands. They weren't about to do that.

Had he remained majority leader, Dole could have helped Americans understand that concession isn't in itself an evil act. First, however, he would have had to convince the more radical side of his own party that deal-making is the lifeblood of politics.

That campaign within a campaign the old warrior wasn't prepared to wage. Pity.