THE Republican presidential contest appears headed for its most fractious and uncertain period in 30 years.
Pat Buchanan's stunning defeat of Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary is rattling the GOP party establishment and threatening to crush a disciplined pattern of succession that has endured since the bitter Goldwater-Rockefeller race of 1964.
Mr. Dole, who until just a few weeks ago was the presumptive nominee, now faces a prolonged period of trench warfare to determine if he can wrest control of the nomination from the pugnacious Buchanan and piano-playing Lamar Alexander.
The fight might not even end with the primary season. Talk is turning in some GOP circles - realistically or not - to a nominating process that won't be settled until the Republican convention in August. Perhaps one of Dole's greatest liabilities is the growing perception that he would be a weak candidate to run against President Clinton in the fall.
But don't count the Senate majority leader out. He's got lots of money, a strong organization, and key endorsements in many primary states to come.
From here, the race spreads across the country in a hurried five-week schedule during which 26 primaries will allocate 75 percent of the party's delegates. Mr. Buchanan's Granite State victory, and Mr. Alexander's tight third, ensures that the GOP is in for a three-way fight that may not be solved until California's primary on March 26.
''This is the first day of a new world of Republican nomination politics,'' says John Pitney, a political scientist at the Claremont McKenna College in California. ''There has got to be a message behind the fact that, in the first two major contests of the season, three-fourths of Republicans voted against Bob Dole. It's not as bad as Watergate yet, but [Dole's defeat] is damaging to the party.''
Buchanan marched down a cobblestone road to victory, edging out Dole by one percentage point with an untraditional coalition of gun owners, religious conservatives, and blue-collar workers worried about the loss of jobs - supporters he calls ''peasants with pitchforks.''
But his victory cannot solely be explained by the appeal of his populist message. It has as much to do with divisions among mainstream Republicans - a predicament that has become more pronounced in the 16 months since the GOP took power on Capitol Hill. The midterm 1994 elections, which gave Republicans the majority in both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years, created an awkward leadership alliance between House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a conservative firebrand, and Senate majority leader Dole, a Nixonian moderate.
Dole remained the heir apparent to the Republican nomination, a status he assumed after George Bush's defeat in 1992. But conservatives never really rallied behind him. Dole fostered confusion among rank-and-file Republicans by shifting toward the right last spring, then returning to the center in the fall as budget talks with the White House faltered.
''Buchanan wins when mainstream Republicans are divided,'' says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
The race now becomes a search for what Mr. Schneider calls ''the anti-Buchanan,'' as party leaders rally around either Dole or Alexander to buttress the GOP mainstream.
As the contest fans out across the country, each of the top three contenders has different strengths and weaknesses.
Dole has money and party endorsements, but he is no longer an undisputed front-runner. Buchanan has momentum, but the GOP establishment will be eager to stop him: His tough trade policies and fiery social rhetoric worry those trying to portray the party as inclusive. Mr. Alexander has become a viable alternative to Dole, but he lacks money and isn't on the ballot in some states.
These factors, placed in the context of the compacted primary season, scatter the field.
Dole is off to the Dakotas, where 36 delegates are up for grabs on Feb. 27. He'll need all of them. Both Buchanan and Steve Forbes pose a serious challenge in Arizona the same day. While Mr. Forbes is an improbable candidate now, having finished a distant fourth in both Iowa and New Hampshire, he has the money to run as long as he wants.
Dole needs to knock Forbes out. The media magnate damaged the senator in both Iowa and New Hampshire with a multimillion-dollar campaign of negative ads, opening the door for Buchanan and Alexander to emerge.
Buchanan is off to Arizona, meanwhile, and Alexander is concentrating on the South. The next big race is likely to be in South Carolina on March 2, where all three top candidates could be competitive. It is the prelude to Super Tuesday in the South.
Who has the overall advantage is uncertain. Professor Pitney says Buchanan has damaged Dole to the extent that Alexander is now a serious contender for the nomination. Schneider thinks Dole still has the edge.
''GOP leaders see Lamar Alexander as a risk,'' he says. ''Social conservatives mistrust Alexander. Economic conservatives mistrust Buchanan. Dole is acceptable to both.''