Senator Bob Dole was last night on his way to a smashing victory in yesterday's batch of key primaries across the US - a win which could virtually settle the battle for the 1996 Republican nomination to face President Bill Clinton this autumn.
Within seconds of the 7pm poll closing, Mr Dole was declared the winner in Vermont, one of the five New England states voting yesterday, while the NBC network projected him as winner in Georgia, the largest and most fiercely contested prize of the day with 42 delegates to August's Republican convention in San Diego. Earlier, exit polls showed the newly reinstalled frontrunner ahead in all eight states which were holding primaries.
Such a sweep would change the entire psychology of the race, creating an aura of inevitability and leaving Mr Dole's remaining opponents no time to regroup in this month's packed schedule of primaries, in which two-thirds of the 1,990 convention delegates will have been allocated when California votes on 26 March.
At stake yesterday were 226 delegates, 208 in primaries in Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland and Colorado and Georgia, plus 18 in caucuses in Washington state - in all nearly one-quarter of the 996 needed to win. Even before yesterday, Mr Dole was starting to pull ahead in the delegate count with 90, against 60 for the publisher Steve Forbes, 39 for Pat Buchanan and 10 for Lamar Alexander.
Defeat in Georgia especially would be a heavy blow for Mr Buchanan, the former commentator and Reagan speechwriter whose staunch religious conservatism and populist protectionism have made him the most aggressive foe of Mr Dole. Yesterday, as other candidates fanned out to upcoming battlegrounds like New York which holds its primary tomorrow, and the big Southern states which vote on March 12 or "Super Tuesday", Mr Buchanan stayed behind to take his message to talkradio stations across the state, in a last bid to score an upset win that would restore his Southern credentials.
As the Dole juggernaut began to roll in earnest, other candidates were already dropping out. Mr Buchanan vows to soldier on to San Diego, buttressed by a 25 to 30 per cent share of the Republican vote spread evenly across the country. So too will Mr Forbes - unless he concludes that there is no point in throwing away more of his $400m personal fortune on a lost cause.
After failing to win his target state of Vermont, Senator Richard Lugar called off his limping campaign. And barring miracles, the Presidential life expectancy of Mr Alexander is only a week longer.
A dismal fourth in South Carolina, the former Tennessee Governor will make his last stand in Florida, a state with 98 delegates which he has been cultivating for months. Unless he defeats Mr Dole there on "Super Tuesday" next week, Mr Alexander will call it quits. "If he beats me in Florida, Senator Dole will be the certain nominee." If yesterday's exit polls are right, he probably is already.
Rattled by his poor second place in South Carolina at the weekend, Mr Buchanan has been adding yet more vitriol to his verbal onslaught against Mr Dole, even describing him as "liberal" - the dirtiest word in the Republican political lexicon and probably the only epithet not bestowed upon the solidly conservative Mr Dole during his 35 years in Congress.
But rhetorical scorched earth tactics showed scant sign of paying off. To call Mr Dole - the most plodding and cliche- mongering of candidates - a new man would be an exaggeration. But his decisive win in South Carolina, seemingly well suited to Mr Buchanan's sternly Christian message, has given the Kansan new confidence. A week ago, the contest was wide open; last night Mr Dole looked a certain winner.
Yesterday he was in New York, escorted by the customary phalanx of Governors, Senators and party grandees, and talking unabashedly of the win there tomorrow that would make his opponents' task wellnigh insuperable. "New York can do it, the other candidates won't even be able to write checks anymore," he jested in a reference to Steve Forbes, whose readiness to splash out $30m of his own money has been the main factor keeping him in the race.Reuse content