WASHINGTON — REPUBLICAN Party leaders must be mopping their brows and sighing with relief. Sen. Bob Dole has the GOP presidential nomination in his grasp, with plenty of time left for him to focus on his next big challenge: taking on President Clinton in November's general election.
The intramural mudslinging that has marked many of the primaries to date was spattering all the candidates. The GOP was running the risk that it would send a nominee weakened by party infighting against a formidable, focused incumbent opponent. Ironically, it's just that kind of fractiousness that battered Democratic standard-bearers in the 1980s.
The question now is whether Mr. Dole can close the fissures exposed in primary battles. Much may depend on his ability to integrate aspects of his opponent's issues - the flat tax, economic anxiety, curbs on global trade - into his own campaign.
''We're going to reunite and find one purpose: Beat Bill Clinton,'' said Dole, triumphant, yesterday.
For Dole himself, virtual victory must represent a sweet reward for the years he has labored as a party stalwart. Only five years ago his political career seemed near an end. President George Bush, victorious in the Gulf war, seemed unbeatable as he headed toward a second term.
Dole, ill and tired, considered retiring to Kansas. It seemed he would never have another chance to try for the presidential brass ring. Then Bush stumbled in the face of Clinton's focus on domestic issues. A new breed of Republicans seized control of Capitol Hill. Suddenly, Dole was The Statesman, the senior party leader whose years of association with the party rank-and-file made him the presumptive Republican nominee.
This time the Dole campaign didn't stumble when it faced a setback loss in New Hampshire. It stuck to its plans, and the Dole advantage in money, organization, endorsements, and stature eventually ground down his opponents.
Now Dole is right back where he started - a front-runner who must still work to excite voters on his behalf. Much of his support stems from pragmatic considerations, such as a judgment among primary voters that he's best suited to take on Clinton in the fall. Even Dole supporters admit their man has difficulty in conveying an inspirational vision on the campaign trail.
Nor have all his primary adversaries laid down their arms. Steve Forbes vows to fight on - aided by the endorsement of Jack Kemp. Pat Buchanan is still out there, waving his pitchfork and attacking big business, Washington politicians, and the UN. Even Mr. Buchanan admits he is now unlikely to defeat Dole. His purpose, he says, is to remake the party in his own image, as much as possible. ''We're going to write the platform for them,'' said the commentator in the face of Dole's apparent triumph.
For Dole, there's both danger and opportunity in Buchanan's words. The danger, of course, is that if either he or the party is closely associated with Buchanan in voters' minds he runs the risk of losing the general election. According to a Voter News Service poll, more than half of the voters in Tuesday's primary states consider Buchanan ''extremist'' - a worry that Dole himself has done his best to raise in their minds.
Furthermore, if Buchanan bolts and runs as a third-party candidate, his hard-core support of 15 to 20 percent could hurt Dole as badly as Ross Perot hurt Bush in 1992.
The opportunity exists in the fact that Buchanan clearly identified issues that Dole and other GOP candidates were ignoring, yet appealed to voters. Emphasizing plans to put people to work at good wages may be more electorally rewarding than talking about balanced-budget resolutions.
''Clearly there's a lot of discontent out there. Pat Buchanan brought that to the fore, and that was positive for Dole. It made him aware what people were feeling,'' says Michael Goldstein, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California.
It's unlikely that candidate Dole will stump the nation and harp on big business excesses. But he may be able to adopt enough of the message - saying he understands workers' anxiety, say - to co-opt some of Buchanan's support. Talk about tax reform could similarly attract some of Mr. Forbes's adherents and present a more united GOP front in November.
Not that such a multi-aspect message is a sure winner against Clinton. Analysts point out that job worries have long caused voters to swing Democratic - even if Democrats control the White House. Lately Clinton officials have been testing a new economic campaign theme: ''Things are going well - but not well enough. We need to do better.''
Thus Dole must approach the co-option of Buchanan's message with care. ''He's got to keep an eye on Buchanan. But his focus has to be on winning the general election,'' says James Pinkerton, a former Bush White House official. But overall, Mr. Pinkerton doubts that primary battles will persuade Dole to adopt major new themes.