Buchanan set for fresh defeat

RUPERT CORNWELL

Charleston, South Carolina

Senator Bob Dole is favourite to fend off Pat Buchanan's challenge and win today's pivotal Republican primary in South Carolina, whose importance in the race for the nomination extends well beyond the 37 delegates the state will send to this summer's convention in San Diego.

On the eve of voting, polls put Mr Dole clearly ahead of the former Reagan speech-writer and conservative commentator, suggesting a strong Dole organisation here and the support of the Republican hierarchy may outweigh Mr Buchanan's appeal to the Christian right and and blue-collar workers fearful for their jobs.

Predictably it was Mr Buchanan, with his denunciation of abortion and moral decay, who drew the loudest cheers of the four major candidates at a Christian-coalition rally on Thursday. But Mr Dole avoided disaster, as he did earlier in the day at a televised candidates' debate mainly notable for vicious exchanges between the two lesser contenders here, the publisher Steve Forbes and Lamar Alexander, an ex-governor of Tennessee.

For Mr Dole and Mr Alexander especially, the stakes here are enormous. With his campaign close to the maximum permitted federal-spending ceiling, the Senate majority leader must secure a victory if he is to break clear in New England, New York, and the rest of the South, which hold their own primaries over the next 10 days.

Anything less than a second place here and victory in Georgia on Tuesday would surely doom Mr Alexander, who has yet to win a primary and will run out of money if potential financial backers lose faith. Yet he appears to be running no better than third, and could be out of the contest after "Super Tuesday" on 12 March.

No such worries bother Mr Forbes, who has indicated he will continue right through.Since he is spending his own money, he is not affected by the $37m (pounds 24.6m) limit that may soon hobble Mr Dole's media efforts in major states like New York, Florida and Texas which lie immediately ahead and especially California on 26 March, if the race is not settled by then.

Also this weekend Wyoming is holding caucuses to select the 12 delegates it will send to San Diego.

Again Mr Dole is favourite but Mr Forbes could make a showing in this traditionally anti-government and libertarian Western state.

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