IN a year that has defied predictions at every turn, it may still be too early to call anyone the presumptive Republican nominee for president.
But Sen. Bob Dole's decisive win in South Carolina and his strong positioning in key primaries over the next week make him the hard-to-beat front-runner that everyone thought he would be well before now.
While several of his main rivals for the nomination have fallen off, Mr. Dole has surged forward with the help of a strong organization and support from the party establishment.
Dole's win in South Carolina on Saturday was by the largest margin yet in any primary - 15 percentage points. That could assuage doubts among voters and party leaders in other states about his strength. Finding a candidate who can beat President Clinton is a top GOP concern.
Second, Dole, with party help, captured strong support among the working class and religious conservatives - two strong constituencies of rival Pat Buchanan.
As the race shifts to New England and the South, the vote in South Carolina may have set the tone for the rest of the campaign. "The historical evidence is that this is a turning point," says Charles Dunn, a political scientist at Clemson University. "South Carolina was a turning point for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George Bush in 1988."
Even as he draws this parallel, however, Professor Dunn is cautious. The primary process this year continues to defy conventional wisdom or historical precedent. The compacted primary schedule seems to be keeping marginal candidates in the game longer, allowing each to campaign where he is strongest.
Voters will go the polls tomorrow in five New England states, Maryland, Colorado, and Georgia. Minnesota and Washington hold caucuses the same night. So far, polls show Dole leading in Massachusetts and Georgia.
The voting Tuesday could winnow the field. Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee who portrays himself as the South's favorite son, has placed most of his hopes in Georgia. If he loses, he may be out. New England, meanwhile, could finally knock off Sen. Richard Lugar, who has stayed in the race in case Dole falters. That still leaves a three-way race among Dole, Mr. Buchanan, and media mogul Steve Forbes.
Buchanan hopes to regain his footing in Maryland, neighbor to his home turf of Washington. He could also fare well in the March 12 Southern regional primary called Super Tuesday. Just as his economic nationalism and conservative social rhetoric played well in Louisiana last month, those themes could resonate in poorer states such as Mississippi and Alabama.
Mr. Forbes, who finished a distant third in South Carolina after a comeback victory in Arizona a few days earlier, could do well in Colorado, another Western state where the vote of Ross Perot supporters is still up for grabs. He also hopes to give Dole trouble in New York, a huge state that once appeared entirely in Dole's pocket. Forbes is the only other candidate on the ballot in every precinct.
The words to remember this week are "winner take all." Several of the states holding primaries in the next eight days award all their delegates to the victor. The right triumphs could secure the nomination.
Dole, ebullient after his victory in South Carolina, tried to remain tempered. "This is the big one," he told supporters at his victory rally in Columbia, "but we have a way to go."
Endorsements played a key role for the senator in South Carolina, which bodes well for Dole as the race progresses. While New Hampshire's party leaders were unable to hand the state to Dole, Gov. David Beasley and former Gov. Carroll Campbell of South Carolina proved instrumental in helping Dole make the case that he is the only candidate in the race who can unite the social and economic conservative wings of the party.
Governor Beasley, who is popular among religious conservatives, helped swing that bloc behind Dole. That may be crucial to Dole's success down the line. That Dole and Buchanan split the Christian conservative vote also demonstrates how religious-right voters have become more savvy politically, showing more concern for the "electability" of a candidate.
Many leaders of South Carolina's religious right, including the Christian Coalition's openly or semi-openly backed Dole, though Buchanan was a more forceful spokesman for conservative social issues. If Southern religious conservatives follow South Carolina's lead, Dole could trump Buchanan on Super Tuesday.
Meanwhile, in a state where BMW and Michelin have replaced textiles, Buchanan's tough rhetoric turned voters toward Dole. Buchanan may find more receptive ears on Tuesday among voters in Maine, where companies like New Balance rely solely on American labor.
But he clearly felt stung after Saturday's results. "We've still got a fighting chance to win the nomination," Buchanan told supporters in Portland, Maine, Saturday night. "We need one big breakthrough."
As in almost every previous primary, the big question hanging over the vote tomorrow is how undecideds and independents will vote. Recent polls show those blocs could account for 50 percent of primary participants. The larger the turnout, those polls found, the greater the potential for another candidate to eat into Dole's lead.
*Staff writer Linda Feldmann contributed to this report from Washington.