AS Republicans vote today in the delegate-rich Super Tuesday primaries, senior GOP strategists are already looking ahead to November's general election - with a mixture of confidence and caution.
Party elders know the GOP may have a formidable edge in the Southern and Mountain states, whose combined electoral votes would give probable nominee Sen. Bob Dole more than half of what he needs to win the presidency. Republicans also know they'll have a lot of support from GOP governors in key battleground states such as California, Ohio, Michigan, and New Jersey.
On the negative side, party regulars are aware that Dole is a weak campaigner, particularly when pitted against talker-in-chief President Clinton, and has a hard time articulating a vision.
One possible solution: marshall the GOP's institutional strengths nationwide and run a ''party campaign'' that sweeps Dole into power. The aim is to use the first GOP majority in the House, the Senate, and statehouses in more than 40 years to make the case of a clean-sweep Republican government. Call it reverse coattails.
''The goal is to build a party campaign going into the 1996 election,'' says former Rep. Vin Weber (R) of Minnesota, an adviser to the Dole campaign. ''We've got a lot of high-voltage people in the party. In some ways, it may be advantageous to have a president that's calm and reassuring after four years of a Perils of Pauline presidency.''
Republican strategist John Sears, who ran President Reagan's two successful campaigns for the White House, agrees that party strength can make up for Dole's weaknesses.
''To run as a representative of the Republican cause, he might well be able to be elected,'' Mr. Sears said at a recent Monitor breakfast. ''It might take a lot of work by a lot of surrogates.... I think even Mr. Dole would admit that on the stump is not perhaps the brightest light that he can be seen in. But we have a lot of people in the party who do very well in that, and if we can get everybody involved, we can better his chances.''
Running Dole on the party's congressional and gubernatorial strength comes with potential pitfalls. The 104th Congress, like its Democratic-controlled predecessors, is suffering from low popularity in opinion polls. The public blamed the Republicans in Congress for the two federal government shutdowns, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich is personally not very popular, even though he's one of his party's most articulate spokesmen. Some voters, in fact, tell pollsters that they like having a Democratic government as a check on the Republican Congress and its ambitious agenda of reform.
''Dole benefits from not being Newt Gingrich,'' says Democratic consultant Mark Melman. But Gingrich's role in a ''party campaign'' scenario would not be as a featured speaker in 30-second national television spots, says former Congressman Weber. His role would be to ''communicate to his troops and to the candidates what the messages are going to be,'' he says.
''The point is, you want 435 candidates for Congress around the country all running on essentially or largely the same set of issues and principles as the presidential candidate,'' he adds.
What November may boil down to, though, is what happens in California, the most populous and electoral-vote-rich state. Clinton just made his 23rd visit there as president, and is looking strong in the polls, for now at least: A recent Field Poll puts Clinton's approval rating in California at 55 percent, up from 43 percent in May 1995. Republicans are counting on GOP Gov. Pete Wilson to help turn the state around.
The wild card in the whole electoral scenario is the possibility of a third-party or independent candidacy; speculation focuses mostly on Ross Perot, but Mr. Buchanan is another possibility.
''I don't think Perot could drag away 19 percent as he did last time, but if he dragged away 9 or 10 percent, that would have a negative impact on the Republican Party's chances,'' says former GOP chair Frank Fahrenkopf.
If the Texas billionaire doesn't run again, Republicans believe they would get most of the voters he won in 1992. Exit polls from the last election indicate that Perot voters were split between President Bush and Clinton as a second choice, with a slight edge toward Clinton. Now polls show that Perot voters would vote GOP by a 2 to 1 margin.
Sears, the former Reagan campaign manager, says he thinks Buchanan is headed toward an independent presidential run. But Fahrenkopf disagrees.