According to US network exit polls, based on answers of voters as they left polling stations in the morning, Mr Dole and Mr Buchanan were running neck-and-neck with 26 per cent each with Mr Alexander, the former Tennessee governor at 23 per cent, a three-point deficit that is within the survey's margin of error.
No figure was immediately available for Steve Forbes, the multimillionaire publisher who has been losing ground in the closing days of the campaign, one of the bitterest and most negative in New Hampshire's history.
The exit-poll returns, close to most surveys published over the weekend, suggest the struggle for the Republican nomination to face President Bill Clinton in November could be unusually protracted, stretching until California's primary on 26 March and possibly beyond.
It will pit Mr Buchanan's fiery brand of social conservatism and protectionist economic populism against Mr Dole and Mr Alexander, both of them comparative moderates in Republican terms. Assuming Mr Buchanan continues to do well as the battle moves into the South and West, pressure is bound to grow from the party hierarchy for Mr Dole or Mr Alexander to step down, to allow the anti-Buchanan vote to unite around a single candidate.
The first actual returns of New Hampshire - 39 votes cast in the two northern hamlets of Hart's Location and Dixville Notch, which completed their balloting just after midnight yesterday - offered scant comfort to Mr Buchanan, giving him just five votes against 14 for Mr Dole and 13 for Mr Alexander.
None the less, and whatever the final outcome, the former commentator and presidential speechwriter is the moral victor of New Hampshire. His "America first" diatribes against the World Trade Organisation, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the United Nations have set the agenda, forcing his opponents to tackle him on his own ground, while his electric oratory has galvanised his supporters. Nor, in quirky New Hampshire at least, has the rumpus over alleged links between a Buchanan campaign co- chairman and the far-right militias done much to hurt him.
In Milford, the content of Mr Dole's speech did not measure up to the perfect setting.
Police had blocked off access roads and searchlights played through the skies, as the candidate led a torchlight parade to the steps of the old red-brick town hall, dominating one of the prettiest town squares in New England.
But another creaking rendition of the stump speech, a blend of hollow cliches and segments of his life story, won the cheers of a multitude numbered at best in the few hundreds. Then came a fireworks display rather more lavish than the occasion warranted. "I accept your nomination," Mr Dole said, winding up the last event of his wretched 1996 foray into New Hampshire with a conviction he could not possibly be feeling.
Milford on a glacial Monday night was a cameo of the Dole campaign, of its lumbering organisation and virtual lack of true believers.
The battles ahead
February 24: Delaware;
February 27: Arizona, North and South Dakota;
March 2: South Carolina;
March 5: Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont;
March 7: New York;
March 12: Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas (Super Tuesday).Reuse content