WITH the New Hampshire primary only three weeks away, the race for the GOP nomination is narrowing to a two-way contest between Bob Dole and Steve Forbes, with others battling to break out from the pack.
Commentator Pat Buchanan received a modest bump this week by winning a GOP straw poll in Alaska. Mr. Forbes, however, continues to be the man of the moment. Two polls in the Granite State show the millionaire publisher moving within striking distance of Senator Dole, though one of the surveys shows him relying heavily on independents for his newfound gains.
In Iowa, Dole shrugged off the polls and repeated his demand that Mr. Forbes release his federal income tax returns. He also suggested Forbes was escaping serious media scrutiny. ''Somehow, they don't seem to bother him,'' Dole said. ''They'd rather focus on Bob Dole the front-runner.''
In one poll, Forbes's support was actually beginning to slip. The survey showed Dole with 33 percent support among 455 likely Republican primary voters and Forbes with 16 percent, down six points from a week earlier. Commentator Pat Buchanan came in third with 15 percent.
The second poll showed a statistical dead heat in which Forbes had 29 percent to Dole's 24 percent among 543 Republicans and independents who said they planned to vote in the GOP primary.
In the Alaska straw poll released Jan. 30, Mr. Buchanan received 33 percent of the total, while Forbes got 31 percent and Dole 17 percent.
Alaska's vote is a tiny fraction of the national total, but the early straw poll drew attention - and several candidates - to the state.
Forbes, Buchanan, Phil Gramm, and Alan Keyes all made personal stops and the candidates spent thousands of dollars on Alaska advertising.
The focus on Forbes has naturally brought barbs from some of the publisher's frustrated opponents. But it has also prompted some of the scrutiny into Forbes's past that Dole has been seeking.
An audit by an agency that Forbes oversaw during the 1980s and early '90s shows some of the same ''wasteful Washington spending'' that Forbes rails against on the presidential campaign trail.
The details include excessive salaries, ''golden parachute'' retirement plans, and a costly renovation of a government-paid official's living quarters.
One report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's inspector general found that the after-tax pay of its top executives had ballooned to $20,000 to $40,000 more than that of their counterparts in the federal government.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty also paid severance pay to workers who voluntarily resigned or retired, despite federal rules to the contrary. After a 1991 report concluded the agency's severance policy was ''inconsistent'' with federal mandates, the policy was changed for new workers only.