AUSTIN, TEXAS — WITH a commanding lead in the race for the Republican nomination, Bob Dole marches into Super Tuesday, the Southern regional primary, like an actor going to a dress rehearsal.
The first priority for the Senate majority leader and likely GOP presidential nominee is delegates: 362 - a third of what a candidate needs to win - are up for grabs.
But with his rivals far behind in both the polls and the delegate tally, Dole also has the luxury of testing his message for November in what will be crucial territory - President Clinton's home turf.
The primaries Tuesday are an important opportunity. The 1994 midterm elections capped a generation-long regional shift to the GOP. No other part of the country has seen as many Democrats defect. No other region has such strong pockets of social conservatives. It may hold the key to the GOP retaking the White House.
Yet Dole is something of an unknown in the South. His previous two attempts at the White House faltered before the Southern primaries. Furthermore, the starchy Kansan doesn't fit hand in glove with the laid-back pace of Southern living. He isn't fully at ease with the rural, conservative "Bubba" camp.
"The important thing now is delegates," says Dave Carney, a senior Dole adviser. "But we'll also be shifting the message, focusing more on Clinton."
So far, it seems, Dole has walked a few steps out of sync with his Republican predecessor, George Bush. He received almost 10 percentage points less than Mr. Bush did in both the South Carolina and Georgia primaries. At the same time, Mr. Clinton seems to be rebounding somewhat across the region after earning high negatives in his first two years in office.
But Dole is running strong in the two anchor states of the South: Texas and Florida. A poll released this week showed that Dole would beat Clinton 56 percent to 40 percent if the general election were held today.
Thus, as Dole campaigns through the deep South this week, his task is to reassure Republicans that he would be an effective standard-bearer. Super Tuesday will be a "search for a Republican candidate who won't harm the party in the fall," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "Most Southern states will go Republican, but it will be competitive."
Appearing at campaign stops in Texas and Florida in the past two days, Dole attacked Clinton for blocking "the first balanced budget in a generation," welfare reform, and tax credits for families with children. Speaking at the governor's mansion Wednesday after receiving an endorsement from Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R), Dole criticized Clinton for not "being aggressive enough" in promoting free- and fair-trade policies.
But not all the senator's comments were aimed at Clinton. The South also offers an important battleground for challenging - and perhaps co-opting - some of the populist themes of GOP rival Pat Buchanan.
Calling himself a "common-sense conservative," Dole criticized Mr. Buchanan's proposal to erect a security fence along the Mexican border. In 1994, he said, Texas earned $42 billion and created 700,000 new jobs because of foreign trade.
Despite his seemingly unconquerable lead in the race, Dole - and the Republican Party - is eager to stop Buchanan, who vows to fight all the way to the convention in San Diego. Buchanan, who won the early caucuses in Louisiana, hopes to gain from the departures of GOP candidates Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. He is focusing his campaign efforts in those two states.
Dole carved into Buchanan's base among social conservatives in both Georgia and South Carolina, winning those primaries with stronger-than-expected support among the religious right.
While it is unlikely that Buchanan will win any of the primaries on Tuesday, he could continue to garner 30 percent of the vote, especially in the less wealthy states such as Alabama and Mississippi. He could also cause Dole problems further down the road, as the race moves into the industrial heartland later this month.
"Buchanan potentially hurts both parties," says Professor Black. "He has championed themes long associated with Democrats," such as workers' rights and corporate greed. "He could pull a lot of the blue-collar vote" away from both parties.
The labor vote has long been a Democratic base, but has shifted in recent years as the suburban working class worries more about economic security. Ross Perot tapped into those fears four years ago.