What About Bob?

The GOP Establishment is terrified by the prospect of Dole's collapse

Plagued by widening internal fissures and a group of battered candidates who refuse to fade away, the Republican Presidential primary saga is turning into a horror classic: The Undead.

In one week, publisher Steve Forbes has gone from politically moribund to resurrected, thanks to wins in Delaware on Feb. 24 and in Arizona on Feb. 27. One week, populist Pat Buchanan is slashing his way to contention in New Hampshire, then he stumbles in Marlboro Country, losing Arizona to Forbes. Fractured front-runner Bob Dole, reeling after a string of early losses, suddenly springs back to life in the Dakotas--and positions himself for a comeback on Mar. 2 in South Carolina. Meanwhile, former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander hangs on.

In case everyone had forgotten, the GOP race was supposed to be nearly over by now. Party leaders engineered the process to cram most key primaries and caucuses into February and March. Front-loading was supposed to favor Establishment hero Dole. Instead, the struggle has become a marathon that will hurt the eventual nominee's chances against President Clinton this fall. Some party strategists are even whispering about a brokered convention, a sight Republicans haven't beheld since 1952.

SUICIDE? That's a long shot, but there's no denying that the family feud is damaging the party. Moderates are fighting conservatives, libertarians are battling Christian fundamentalists, and country clubbers are snubbing Buchanan's blue-collar hordes. "We're seeing the suicidal side of the party coming out," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato. "Republicans are well down the road to disaster."

The biggest loser from the internecine warfare is the GOP Establishment. Dole, the Old Guard's standard-bearer, may yet prevail. But he has revealed such profound weaknesses as a candidate that no amount of reconstructive surgery may get him in shape for the general election. "If Bob Dole is the nominee, Clinton will eat him alive," frets Thomas N. Edmonds, a GOP media consultant.

Although Dole's rivals should be heartened by his woes, they have little to crow about. A negative ad blitz has exposed the candidates' soft spots, from Forbes's Daddy Warbucks strategy to Alexander's questionable Tennessee business deals to Buchanan's fringe ideas. The result: Exit polls show nearly half of GOP primary voters think none of their candidates can beat Clinton. In a Feb. 27 Gallup Poll, his lead over Dole grew to 16 percentage points, up from 4 points in a month. Although the GOP candidates' shared theme of less government and various prescriptions for a U.S. economy undergoing a massive transition resonate with voters, none of them is articulating the message well, says Boston College political scientist Marc K. Landy. "The problem is a lack of leadership more than anything else."

For now, Republicans have little time to worry about Clinton. From Mar. 2 to Mar. 12, primaries will be held in 16 states, with 700 delegates--35% of the total--up for grabs. These 10 days could reshuffle the GOP field again. Here's how each candidate hopes to win:

DOLE: The Kansan still has the organization to win the nomination. He's backed by most GOP governors, whose political machines can boost turnout. And polls show that Dole remains the favorite of rank-and-file Republicans. The key: getting Alexander, who is cutting into his base, to quit. "If all these candidates who can't win stay in, they'll help Buchanan," says ex-South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell, a Dole backer.

Dole needs to fend off Forbes in New York on Mar. 7 and then capture Florida and Texas on Super Tuesday five days later. That would give him momentum in the Mar. 19 primaries in the Midwest. If all goes according to plan, Dole could wrap up the nomination in California on Mar. 26. One problem: Having spent an estimated $30 million through February, Dole may hit his $37 million primary spending cap by Super Tuesday, which would limit his ability to buy TV spots in remaining megastates.

FORBES: There's good reason the millionaire publisher is humming I Love New York. Dole's Empire State allies tried to make it all but impossible for other candidates to get on the primary ballot. But Forbes triumphed over the party bosses in court, and he's hoping to win again at the polls. Although Dole has the support of Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato and Governor George Pataki, Forbes has his checkbook. He'll rely on a costly media blitz that trumpets his optimistic economic message and his hostility to "the Washington political culture."

If he upsets Dole in New York, Forbes figures the bump will help him knock off the Kansas candidate in the Midwest. Then Forbes gets his dream matchup: a showdown with Buchanan in California's winner-take-all contest, with 163 delegates at stake.

BUCHANAN: The strategy here is to count on a continued splintering of the GOP field, which would allow Buchanan to pile up delegates. His main hope is to sweep the South, where Christian conservatives hold sway. A key test will be Georgia on Mar. 5. The big prize comes a week later in Texas, where the withdrawal of home-state Senator Phil Gramm from the race has opened up a big bloc of delegates. Buchanan also is counting on blue-collar economic anxieties to produce upsets in New England and the Midwest.

ALEXANDER: Although he hasn't managed to finish better than third anywhere and is running out of cash, the "new ideas" Tennessean still dreams of inheriting the center if Dole collapses. Alexander "needs to become the alternative to Buchanan," says campaign pollster Whit Ayres. How? Alexander's scenario has him crippling Dole with wins in Georgia and Florida, besting Forbes in the Midwest, and then snaring California. Party pros say: Dream on.

Of course, no party can tolerate a four-way slugfest like this for long. The trouble for Dole and the Establishment is that, Alexander aside, three of the four combatants seem determined to go the distance. Buchanan's effort is a low-overhead guerrilla campaign. Forbes is capable of spending upwards of $60 million, at his current clip. And Dole, running his last-chance Presidential campaign, won't give up easily. "The danger," says GOP pollster Frank I. Luntz, "is that the candidates chew up and then spit each other out, leaving the party in pieces." The only contender likely to be clapping after this show ends: the Arkansan in the White House.

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