FROM the possum swamps of Louisiana to the soggy woods of New Hampshire, there suddenly seems to be a presidential race.
Sen. Bob Dole, who for a year has enjoyed Dallas Cowboys-sized odds on winning the Republican nomination, seems all at once vulnerable. His rivals are pouncing on his lackluster response to President Clinton's State of the Union speech last week. Steve Forbes, the silver-spooned outsider, has come within the margin of error in at least one New Hampshire poll.
There's no doubt the Dole team was in recovery mode this weekend. At a gathering of firefighters here Saturday, the senator quipped about his speech: "I gave a fireside chat and the fire went out."
So is this the moment Mr. Dole's rivals have always said - and hoped - would come? Does Lamar Alexander really have a chance of taking the checkered flag in his trademark checkered shirt?
Certainly, Dole chose a poor moment to appear vulnerable. The Iowa caucuses are just two weeks away and many voters are still making up their minds. Dole's flat speech may cause more of them to doubt whether he can beat Mr. Clinton in November.
But the configuration of the race still favors Dole, political handicappers say. So far, Mr. Forbes is the only candidate nipping at his heels. Few pundits see Forbes as a serious contender for the nomination.
They doubt the Republican Party, not to mention conservatives, would rally behind him. In the meantime, his rise is keeping many of the others from breaking out of single digits.
"Why is Forbes doing so well?" asks Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University. "Dole has given dullness a new meaning. But can you imagine how the Democrats would attack Republicans as the party of the rich if their nominee's message was 'Tax only income.' You might as well call off the election."
That's not to say Dole's stumble doesn't give his rivals an opening or pose other problems for the Republicans. Consider the Gary Hart scenario. Dole has to win the expectations game in Iowa, where he has long been considered a kind of third senator. If Forbes takes a strong second and steals the headlines, as Senator Hart did against Walter Mondale in 1984, he could gather enough steam to win in New Hampshire a week later.
Oh, what scenarios the campaigns spin
That could send the campaign in three different directions. First, the party panics and Dole recovers. "Mondale won the nomination in the end by rallying the party base against Hart as an imposter," says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "That's what Dole is doing. Forbes is a hard sell to conservatives."
Second, Forbes opens the door for one of the others already in the race. This is what the other camps are counting on. Forbes stings Dole and voters turn elsewhere. Texas Sen. Phil Gramm could rebound in the Southern primaries, his home turf. Mr. Alexander of Tennessee or Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana might benefit from the the undecided block, which some polls in Iowa and New Hampshire show to be growing as Dole slides.
"Forbes could act as a catalyst the rest of the field needs to bring down Dole," says a senior strategist for one of the campaigns, requesting anonymity. "Forbes has an air game, no grass-roots organization, and no credibility. He's already hit a plateau. The disaffected vote is going to undecided, and is in a holding pattern. As time goes by, it may go to Alexander or Lugar."
Professor Wayne takes a different view of the undecided vote, which raises a third possibility: Someone new jumps into the race. "The undecided bloc indicates a hard level of dissatisfaction for Dole and the others," he says. "We may have an opening for new horses to enter." Say, for example, Jack Kemp, who stayed out in part because Dole looked unbeatable.
Messy primary could be doleful in the fall
The short-term race, however, seems unlikely to give Dole that much trouble. He has the money and the party endorsement to run the distance, most say. But a tough nomination race presents a problem later.
Clinton faces no primary challengers, which means he can save his money while the Republicans drain their coffers seeking the nomination. The Dole camp is launching a new, and expensive, ad campaign against Forbes this week in both Iowa and New Hampshire. A protracted race will force survivors to spend large sums during March, when multistate primaries come every Tuesday.
Then, starting in April, when the GOP nominee is both bruised and perhaps short on cash, Clinton can start to pummel his chosen opponent.
"More ominous for Bob Dole is the long-term," says political analyst Charles Cook. "The party is not enthusiastic about him. And come April, he has shot his wad and Bill Clinton starts carpet bombing.
"The big danger for the Republicans," he says, "is going into the summer with Bob Dole 10 to 15 points behind. That's a wide gap to close."