WASHINGTON — IT'S still early in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, but so far no rivals have been able to gain ground on the smoothly humming campaign of front-runner Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas.
Other major candidates -- particularly Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and California Gov. Pete Wilson -- have veered off their messages this spring, troubled by political problems of their own. Mr. Dole, meanwhile, has skillfully managed a difficult dual role: partisan presidential hopeful and legislative Senate leader.
That means the also-running aspirants will soon step up attacks on Dole, lest he get too far ahead, say political analysts. They should be worried -- the Senate majority leader's taillights are already dimming in the distance.
''Unless he stumbles very badly, he's going to be the Republican nominee,'' claims Allan Lichtman, a political scientist at the American University in Washington.
Of course, Dole has stumbled before.
His famous testiness proved disastrous in his previous two tries for the White House, and the press is poised to pounce on any snapping retort, scowl, or rhetorical jab that seems to exemplify Dole-as-hatchetman.
Dole thus will have to keep himself focused and controlled at all times. That's a tough order for any politician dogged by dozens of mini-cam crews.
''Once Dole makes a slip the news media will magnify it. I wonder about his vulnerabilities down the road,'' says Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University.
To this point, though, it's the other guys that have looked vulnerable.
Take Senator Gramm, long considered Dole's most difficult competition. Gramm's strengths were supposed to be his appeal to conservatives -- and his large hoard of ready cash. But $5 million in campaign money spent has barely kept Gramm in second place in many polls. Much of the GOP right wing, meanwhile, has seemed more attracted to commentator Pat Buchanan -- and his dais-thumping about social issues -- than to Gramm's message of tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts.
Gramm's attempts to espouse social issues have been hurt by revelations that he invested in an R-rated movie deal. The Texas senator might pull off a surprise in New Hampshire, where the state motto might well be ''Low Taxes or Else.'' But so far ''Gramm's fizzled,'' judges Lichtman.
Wilson down, but not likely out
Then there's Pete Wilson. A California governor who has recently won a come-from-behind reelection fight has to be considered a tough contender for the GOP nomination. But Wilson had to postpone his official entry into the campaign, largely because recent throat problems have left him unable to talk.
More seriously, a recent Field poll shows that two-thirds of California voters disapprove of a Wilson candidacy, because he promised not to run for president during his last gubernatorial campaign. The poll showed that both Dole and Clinton would defeat Wilson in head-to-head matchups.
Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego and former pollster for the Clinton campaign, says that at this stage in the election cycle, Wilson's bad polls ''don't mean anything.''
''But if they don't change by January, he'll be in trouble,'' Popkin adds.
One candidate Wilson has siphoned support from is Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee, note a number of analysts. Both Wilson and Alexander are positioned as Washington outsiders with experience running state governments. But Wilson, by virtue of his higher national profile and greater fund-raising power, is likely to be the dominant ''governor niche'' candidate.
Newt's winks and nudges
Overall, the failure of the pack to close on front-runner Dole can be seen in the winks and nudges given off by another potential candidate: House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
Speaker Gingrich is now disavowing presidential ambitions with the sort of nonchalant denials that often indicate availability to a draft campaign. Next month, he'll make an event-crammed visit to -- surprise, surprise -- New Hampshire.
Gingrich may simply be flirting with a campaign to regain a measure of attention for the House in the face of media focus on recent events in the Senate. Or he may be preparing for a deadlocked convention where Dole remains the leading candidate but is opposed by conservatives who believe him a closet moderate.
''He may want to be in position for the right wing to turn to him,'' says Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University.
The next turn in the campaign trail is likely to see increased pressure on front-runner Dole from those in his wake. Already, Gramm has stepped up criticism of the majority leader's role as a Senate dealmaker, accusing him of timidity in the Senate's recent tax-cut debate and waffling on opposition to the Clinton administration's nominee for surgeon general, Dr. Henry Foster.
Dole's age may come in for criticism, after remaining largely an off-limits subject in the early months of the campaign. Thus Alexander, struggling to break out of the pack, often reminds voters that he is ''of the next political generation.'' Implicitly this draws a contrast with Sen. Dole, who is likely the last World War II veteran to run for president.