Bob Dole
File picture: Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole makes a point during a Memorial Day speech in Clifton, New Jersey May 27, 1996. Image Credit: Reuters

Bob Dole, the World War II veteran who recovered from near-fatal wounds to become the US Senate Republican leader and a three-time presidential candidate, has died. He was 98.

Dole died Sunday morning in his sleep, according to a Twitter post by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. He disclosed in February that he had stage-four lung cancer.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered the flags at the US Capitol lowered to half-staff in his honour, her spokesman Drew Hammill said.

Dole's loss to Democrat Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential election ended a political career that spanned more than four decades and took him from the legislature in Kansas to the innermost circles of power in Washington.

Dole emerged on the national stage as Richard Nixon's "Hatchet Man," staunchly defending the president through the early stages of Watergate. He later evolved into an adept legislative deal-maker and softened his public image as half of one of Washington's first celebrated "Power Couples," after Ronald Reagan appointed his wife, Elizabeth, US Transportation Secretary. He was the only former GOP presidential nominee to endorse Trump in the 2016 election.

He was a conservative who sometimes wasn't conservative enough as Christian evangelicals wielded greater power in Republican politics; a quipster with an acid tongue who ended up making light of his role as pitchman for an impotence drug; and a man who enjoyed the idea that his wife might outdo him in politics.

Tom Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat who faced off with Dole when they led their parties in the Senate, said in a 2000 tribute that Dole's "sense of fairness and decency is a standard for which everyone in public life should aim."

Dole struggled to translate his proven skill at Washington's inside game into success on the most important national political stage. He lost bids for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, to Reagan, and 1988, to George H.W. Bush. He finally won his party's support in 1996, only to fall short of defeating Clinton, the incumbent.

"No one aspires to be a defeated presidential candidate," Dole wrote in a column for the Washington Post published in September 2012.

Final race

During his final race in 1996, trailing in the polls, Dole took the dramatic step of resigning the Senate seat he had held for more than 27 years.

"I will then stand before you without office or authority, a private citizen, a Kansan, an American, just a man," he said in announcing his decision in May 1996.

As with many senators who seek the White House, Dole found that his long record of votes on legislation offered grist for his opponents. So did the 23-year age difference with the younger Clinton. Dole made a 15% cut in individual income taxes his centerpiece campaign proposal and tried to energize economic conservatives by picking former Representative Jack Kemp as his running mate.

Dole won 19 states and 40.7% of the vote. Ross Perot, running as the nominee of the Reform Party, won 8.4%. Clinton won with 49.2%.

Applause lines

Some saw Dole as his own worst enemy.

"On the stump he seemed like a man caught in a 1983 applause-line factory," Peggy Noonan, the author and former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, wrote in Time magazine after the election. "He never thought aloud in his speeches, never offered the sustained and layered argument that precedes the applause line. He just declared things - And there'll be no more crime in a Dole administration! - and waited for people to clap as he cleared his throat."

Some of his political drive stemmed from the wound he received on April 14, 1945, while serving as a second lieutenant with the US Army's 10th Mountain Division in Italy.

A German shell or bullet - he never knew for sure - struck him in the back, near his right shoulder. "For a long moment, I didn't know if I was dead or alive," he wrote in "One Soldier's Story," his 2005 memoir. His collarbone and right arm had been broken, his spinal cord damaged.

He lost the use of his right hand, a disability he tried to make less conspicuous by putting rolled-up paper or a pen in his fingers to keep them from splaying. Friends knew, when greeting Dole with a handshake, to reach out their left hands.

Veterans' letters

The wound and four-year recovery left Dole "determined to make up the loss by living each day as if it were my last," he wrote in a 1988 book co-authored with his wife.

In his 2012 column, Dole reported that, at 89, he still answered every letter he received from military veterans with unmet needs - "to the dismay of staffers trying to decipher my spidery handwriting."

"Most days I'm on the phone congratulating a vet on his birthday or encouraging returning soldiers whose wounds are emotional as well as physical," Dole wrote. "I thank them for their service and, where appropriate, share my experiences as evidence that the only limits to one's usefulness are self-imposed."

Robert Joseph Dole was born July 22, 1923, in the farm town of Russell, Kansas, the son of Doran and Bina Dole. His father ran a small restaurant, then worked at a creamery and later at a grain elevator. His mother sold sewing machines.

Becoming Republican

Dole was a sophomore at Kansas University when Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, and he joined the Army a year later. He later obtained his undergraduate and law degrees from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.

He made his first foray into politics in 1950, winning election to the Kansas House of Representatives at 27. He ran as a Republican because they outnumbered Democrats in the state.

"I became a Republican, pragmatically at first, and then philosophically later on," he wrote. By then, Dole had married Phyllis Holden, an occupational therapist he had met while recovering from his wounds. Their daughter, Robin, was born in 1954.

In 1952, he was elected Russell County attorney, a job he held until he was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1960. Dole easily won election to the Senate in 1968, succeeding Republican Frank Carlson.

Dole's rise was helped by President Richard Nixon, who named him chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1971. Dole honed his skills as political brawler with a fierce defense of Nixon, sometimes upbraiding other Republicans when he felt their support was wavering. He attacked the Washington Post's early reporting on the Watergate break-in as "mudslinging."

'Hatchet Man'

Republican Senator William Saxbe of Ohio applied the term "hatchet man" to Dole, saying he was so unpopular in the Senate "he couldn't sell beer on a troop ship."

Dole's relationship with Nixon became strained, and after winning re-election in 1972, Nixon dumped Dole as chairman. The move may have saved Dole's career. When the Watergate scandal broke, he was in the clear. Dole won his 1974 re-election with 51% of the vote.

Dole nonetheless considered Nixon a mentor even after the former president's disgrace. He wept during a eulogy he delivered at Nixon's funeral.

While Dole's political career was on the rise, his marriage was failing, and in 1972 it ended in divorce. He met Elizabeth Hanford, then a staff member of the President's Commission on Consumer Interests, and they married in 1975. The marriage gave Dole fodder for his humour. When President Reagan nominated Elizabeth to be Transportation secretary, Dole testified at her confirmation hearing: "I regret that I have but one wife to give for my country's infrastructure."

Dirty work

President Gerald Ford picked Dole as his vice presidential running mate in 1976. Tasked with doing the campaign dirty work, Dole succeeded all too well. During a televised debate with Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota, the Democratic candidate for vice president, Dole claimed that 1.6 million Americans had been killed or wounded in "Democrat wars" of the 20th century.

Mondale shot back, "I think Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight." Jimmy Carter and Mondale defeated the Ford-Dole ticket by 2 percentage points in the popular vote.

In 1980, Dole ran for the top spot on the ticket and barely registered in the Republican primaries. Reagan won, and went on to unseat Carter.

As a senator, Dole built a conservative voting record, though he wouldn't hesitate to deviate from the party line to achieve compromises.

In 1982, as federal deficits rose and Reagan proposed massive spending reductions, Dole led a successful effort to overhaul the tax system and roll back some of Reagan's cuts.

He once said his greatest accomplishment was working with Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan and others in 1983 to save the Social Security program from looming insolvency.

Dole won election as Senate Republican leader in 1984, a position he would hold for almost 11 years, a party record until Mitch McConnell surpassed his tenure.

Bush contest

In 1988, he again pursued his party's presidential nomination, in a bitter race with Bush. On primary night in New Hampshire, as Bush was rolling to victory, Dole lashed out when asked on NBC television if he had anything to say to Bush. "Yeah. Stop lying about my record," he said.

Dole's campaign unraveled, and he dropped out a month later. With Bush in the White House and Dole as the Senate Republican leader, the two men developed a friendly working relationship. Dole "never, ever put his own personal agenda ahead of the president's," Bush later said.

Health care

With Clinton in the White House starting in 1993, Dole played a far different role, helping lead his party's effort to scuttle the Democrats' proposed overhaul of the US health-care system.

Dole was almost as visible in retirement as in the Senate. After surgery for prostate cancer, he did television commercials for Viagra, Pfizer Inc.'s pill to treat impotence. He spoke publicly of his experience, urging men to get checkups. He also led the effort to raise funds to build the World War II Memorial in Washington.

His wife's campaign for the presidency in 2000 faltered quickly due to difficulties raising money.

In 1997, Clinton awarded Dole the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2003, the University of Kansas dedicated the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics.

"I liked Dole," Clinton wrote in his memoir. "He could be mean and tough in a fight, but he lacked the fanaticism and hunger for personal destruction that characterized so many of the hard-right Republicans who now dominated his party in Washington."