COLUMBIA, S.C. AND WASHINGTON — IT'S crunch time for Bob Dole.
Following mixed results in Tuesday's primaries, the Republican Senate leader needs to win here in South Carolina to reinvigorate his campaign - and show that he can beat insurgent populist Pat Buchanan in a major state where the two are going head to head.
South Carolina represents a crucial gateway to the Republican nomination. Its primary on Saturday - the first in the region, making it a sort of ''New Hampshire of the South'' - could help give the turbulent GOP field some definition.
Unlike New Hampshire, though, South Carolina is emerging as more of a two-man race - Dole vs. Buchanan - and the Dole camp is hoping that weak campaign efforts here by Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes will funnel enough of the traditional GOP vote to Dole to ensure victory.
The good news for Senator Dole is that Mr. Forbes's win in Arizona Tuesday undercuts some of the momentum of Mr. Buchanan, who came in a surprising third in the primary, behind Dole. His victory complicates the quest to see who'll be the Senate majority Senate majority leader's primary challenger.
On the other hand, Dole has yet to win a major state, despite his triumphs in North and South Dakota. Thus, if he doesn't win in South Carolina Saturday, it could raise serious questions about his credibility among party leaders as the nomination schedule moves into its most critical 10 days: At stake are some 750 delegates in 19 primaries and caucuses.
''South Carolina and Georgia could change the dynamics for the whole region,'' says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. ''With the field so fluid, they will affect the subsequent elections.''
In a Mason-Dixon Poll published today in the Charleston Post and Courier, Dole maintains a strong lead in South Carolina. He was favored 35 to 24 percent over Buchanan. Alexander garnered 13 percent and Forbes 10 percent among likely Republican primary voters. The poll was conducted Monday and Tuesday nights.
For his part, Dole is counting on the support of the state's Republican establishment here to carry him across the finish line. Gov. David Beasley, former Gov. Carroll Campbell, and Sen. Strom Thurmond, all enormously popular, are appearing with Dole on the stump. Governors Beasley and Campbell are featured in an often-airing television ad touting Dole as a conservative.
But, as Dole discovered in New Hampshire, big-name endorsements don't guarantee victory. And, as elsewhere, Buchanan has tapped into a well of support here among religious conservatives and people worried about global economic change. Unlike New Hampshire, South Carolina has a large Christian conservative population - about 30 to 40 percent of the Republican electorate, analysts say - and Buchanan is rapidly reeling in believers.
Last night, Buchanan was to address the congregation at the Evangel Cathedral in Spartanburg. And tonight, he'll appear at a Christian Coalition ''God and Country Rally'' in Columbia, the capital.
But South Carolina presents some paradoxes for Buchanan as well. While it has a strong Christian conservative presence, it also has an economy thriving on international trade - a boom that would seem to weaken Buchanan's arguments about job insecurity. Textile mills are closing, but in their place have come BMW, Fuji film, and the Italian firm Pirelli. In some regions of the state, unemployment is under 2 percent; good jobs are going unfilled.
''We're tickled pink by the economy in South Carolina,'' says Trey Walker, executive director of the state GOP. ''For every textile job that Buchanan's talking about, three or four jobs are being created by international investment in South Carolina.''
Still, some South Carolinians have not proved immune to the economic anxiety that Buchanan has tapped into around the country. On a recent day, Jane Bouknight, a nurse at the local veterans hospital, walked into Buchanan headquarters here ready to write a check to support his campaign.
''I oppose GATT and NAFTA,'' Mrs. Bouknight asserted, referring to two free-trade treaties. ''I don't think they'll help our economy.''
When reminded of how the state's economy has been buoyed by exports, she replied: ''Well, that's what they say, and then they close down plants. Jobs are leaving.'' Buchanan's support among religious conservatives, compared with Dole's, is difficult to gauge. The conventional wisdom is that Christian conservative leaders with experience in politics - such as Governor Beasley - are acting pragmatically and backing Dole, in the belief that he is more electable than Buchanan.
The grass roots, this thinking goes, would tend more toward Buchanan, who has spoken out more passionately than Dole on issues like abortion.
''As elsewhere, the Christian Coalition in South Carolina is not unified on one candidate,'' says James Guth, a specialist on the state's Christian conservatives at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
He also notes that religious conservatives in the state are involved in a variety of different groups, not just the Christian Coalition, and that there are historical differences in political views between the Southern Baptists, who tend more toward political moderation, and the fundamentalists.
Another wild card in the state's primary is Sen. Phil Gramm's defunct campaign. He had built up a strong network in the state, and when he dropped out of the race, his support scattered.
''My sense is a lot of Gramm's titular people went to Dole, and a lot of the grass roots went to Buchanan,'' says Walker.
As for Forbes, his back-to-back victories in Delaware and Arizona mark a turnaround almost never seen this late in the primary process. They reflect the candidate's return to the optimistic themes that gained him momentum in the early weeks of the year.
Forbes backed off the negative ads that may have done him harm in New Hampshire and Iowa, and far outspent his rivals in Arizona.
He also capitalized on the moves of his rivals. Forbes participated in a debate last Thursday that Dole declined to join. He was the only major candidate to campaign in the Delaware primary, which others shied away from out of deference to party leaders in New Hampshire.
Forbes's flat-tax proposal, which had lost its luster in earlier primaries, found receptive voters in Arizona. ''Economic conservatives are more numerous out here [Arizona] than social conservatives,'' says Hank Kenski, an aide to Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona.
Still, Forbes will have a difficult time keeping his momentum. He has almost no organization in the South. He may fare well, however, in the Colorado primary on March 5.