Pat Buchanan, the new front runner for the Republican presidential nomination, took a narrow lead in yesterday's Arizona primary over the publisher Steve Forbes, with Senator Bob Dole in third place, according to US television network exit polls.
The polls suggest that the former commentator and Reagan speechwriter, whose combination of moralising conservatism and populist economics has set a previously dull campaign alight, by early afternoon held a 2-point margin over Mr Forbes - within the margin of statistical error - and a 6-point edge over Mr Dole.
If Mr Buchanan can clinch a win in Arizona, and with it the 39 delegates it sends to this August's convention, it will make him clear favourite in South Carolina, whose increasingly vital primary takes place on Saturday.
Yesterday's votes in Arizona and North and South Dakota (in both of which Mr Dole was expected to win) closed the first phase of the campaign, of smaller individual primaries. After South Carolina, a bellwether state described as a virtual "New Hampshire of the South," the campaign turns into weekly multi-state mega-contests, where momentum is all.
Like Arizona, South Carolina looks fertile Buchanan territory - a stronghold of the religious right, perfect for his stern "pro-life" platform, but also a state where jobs are at risk in textiles and other industries, and thus receptive to his "America First" economic views.
For Lamar Alexander and Mr Dole, the stakes could hardly be higher. After a string of third place finishes, the former Tennessee Governor must win somewhere very soon, and probably nothing less than second in South Carolina will do. But assuming Mr Dole comes in only third in Arizona, his position is scarcely better.
He desperately needs a success, to shore up his strength in the South before "Super Tuesday" ten days later when 362 convention delegates are at stake, more than a third of the 996 needed to win the nomination. If not, then the party establishment, so far lined up behind him almost to a man, will surely start looking elsewhere for a candidate to halt Mr Buchanan.
Evidence of the Senate majority leader's floundering campaign abounds. This week he responded to charges of excess negative advertising and failure to elaborate a message by reshaping his staff, sacking his pollster and demoting his deputy campaign chairman - who promptly resigned.
Meanwhile, a familiar Dole problem has resurfaced in South Carolina: whether to take part in Thursday's candidates' debate, a forum in which he rarely shines, or skip it as he did in Arizona last week - only to offer fresh ammunition to his opponents that he was ducking the fight. The Dole camp yesterday said it was "revisiting the issue".
Most menacing of all in the medium term, he could run out of money. Having spent more than $25m(pounds 16m), Mr Dole is fast approaching the $37 million limit set for the primary campaign for candidates accepting federal matching funds. The multi-millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, who is paying his own way, is subject to no such constraint and vows to continue the contest all the way, siphoning off votes that would have gone to Mr Dole.
"If he starts spending more, I don't know what to do," Mr Dole says, "because sooner or later we'll be out of money." But even more quickly he must resolve a deadly paradox. Poll after poll shows that he is the man most Republicans want as their nominee. Alas, they are not voting that way.Reuse content