BOB DOLE is poised to have another successful day tomorrow - at least when it comes to reaping delegates for the Republican Party nomination.
The front-runner marched across the South this weekend with a confident lead in the seven states holding primaries Tuesday.
But Mr. Dole has yet to unify the party, and nowhere is that challenge more portentous than in the South, where the GOP depends on a fragile coalition between economic and social conservatives.
It is probably too late for either Pat Buchanan or Steve Forbes to prevent Dole from winning the nomination. Even so, tomorrow's primaries are important to the Senate majority leader. Both Messrs. Forbes and Buchanan have ignored calls by party leaders to stand down. They vow to carry on all the way to the convention. How well they do tomorrow will help determine the depth of their resolve - and the longevity of the splits within the party.
The threat of division is especially urgent with Buchanan. The more delegates he wins, the more trouble he can make for Dole, particularly on social issues such as abortion. Many social conservatives, particularly across the South, remain skeptical of the Kansan.
"As long as Pat Buchanan persists in making the point he has been making, it will be impossible to achieve unity in the party," says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. "A lot of this flows from the fact that the Republican Party doesn't have the ideal candidate."
The problem, Professor Black says, is that Dole is no Ronald Reagan.
Across the South, Republicans could never build a majority with middle-class fiscal conservatives alone. But in 1980, Mr. Reagan united both wings of the party - social conservatives and economic conservatives - with a sense of optimism. He was unquestionably against abortion, and saw to it that the party included an anti-abortion plank in its platform. Maintaining that coalition was difficult for the more moderate George Bush, but as Reagan's heir apparent he held the majority together in 1988.
The Great Dividers
Dole, on the other hand, has at times raised doubts among both wings, which helps explain why Forbes and Buchanan persist. As the author of a plan to raise taxes in 1982, a year after Reagan's historic tax cut, Dole worries the pro-growth, supply-side wing of the party.
Social conservatives are another concern. Dole was able to carve into Buchanan's base in that wing of the party in South Carolina with help from Gov. David Beasley, a darling of the religious right. The senator may gain a similar boost from Texas Gov. George Bush. But religious conservatives who have voted for Dole have done so more because they feel he is the most electable Republican candidate, not because he represents their views on social issues, according to exit polls.
That portends trouble for Dole's ability to unify the party before the convention. As the Missouri caucuses showed this weekend, Buchanan still has hard support among ardent social conservatives. In the past two weeks, as his hopes for the nomination have dimmed, Buchanan's rhetoric has become more divisive. He talks about a movement, not a candidacy, and it resonates with some voters.
Speaking at a rally called the Pastor's Roundtable here, he vowed to fight every element of the party to ensure that Republicans keep the anti-abortion plank of their platform.
If he keeps winning 25 to 30 percent of the delegates, which is possible especially in the Midwestern states, he could have enough strength to prevent Dole from choosing a running mate such as Gen. Colin Powell, who supports abortion rights.
The speech, laced with biblical quotations, carried historical overtones. Four years ago, Buchanan shook the GOP convention in this city with his call for a "cultural war."
"This is a great battle," he said. "The press hasn't forgotten what we said here four years ago. This is a cultural war for the soul of America. I told the truth."
Judging by the chorus of "amens" from the audience, a gathering of some 500 pastors and business people, Buchanan's appeal is vibrant, despite his recent loses. More than a few establishment Republicans worry he will take his base away from the party if he feels locked out.
"In 1992, Buchanan was a Robert E. Lee figure who made a graceful surrender," says John Pitney, a political scientist at the Claremont McKenna College in California. "Now he is threatening to do what many Confederate soldiers wanted to do - head for the hills and wage guerrilla war."
If Buchanan splits off, or he and Forbes win enough delegates to have leverage at the convention, Dole may not be able to unite the two wings of party until the fall. That worries Steve Merksamer, a senior adviser to the Dole campaign, in the short term.
But in the long run, he says, the great unifying factor may not be Dole, but President Clinton.
"We need Jack Kemp and Steve Forbes, who represent the growth wing of the party, and Dan Quayle and Pat Buchanan, who represent the cultural wing," he says. "But we have a secret weapon: Bill Clinton. He is anathema to the growth wing - he is the greatest taxer in history - and the cultural wing - because of his own character."