Columbia, South Carolina
"So much for the professional pundits," grinned Steve Forbes yesterday after his upset win in Arizona, that crooked smile more mischievous than ever as he recited his message-cum-mantra of "message of growth, hope and opportunity". You can say that again. Albeit momentarily, the miraculous has occurred: American TV's chattering class has been rendered almost speechless.
The results of Tuesday's three primaries have, for the third time in eight days, turned conventional punditry on its head. How will this enthralling chase for the Republican nomination to challenge Bill Clinton end? The short reply is, no-one has a clue.
After Arizona, and North and South Dakota, only questions abound. After a triumph in New Hampshire which sent shivers through Western chancelleries, is Pat Buchanan starting to lose some bounce? Is Lamar Alexander about to be unmasked as an empty suit? Might not predictions of Bob Dole's imminent demise, after his setbacks in New Hampshire and Delaware, be a trifle premature? And what, of course, of Mr Forbes, written off last week, but now a winner twice inside four days?
And Mr Forbes it is who leads in the one chase that ultimately matters, to amass the 996 committed delegates needed to nominate at the San Diego convention this summer. He has 60, followed by Pat Buchanan with 37, Bob Dole with 35, and Lamar Alexander with 10. But the real spoils will be divided over the next four weeks: 226 delegates in 10 primaries on 5 March, 102 on 7 March in New York, 362 more on Super Tuesday on 12 March , another 229 in the Mid-West on 19 March, and then the biggest single prize of California on 26 March. Plus of course 37 in South Carolina, where the Republican circus is currently encamped.
Saturday's primary, in a state which offers as many contrasts as the Republican race itself, is so important because it may provide the first answers. Kernel of the old Confederacy, South Carolina believes in tradition and deference - which should help Mr Dole. He has the endorsement of the state's Republican establishment, led by the immensely popular former Governor Carroll Campbell, his successor David Beasley as well as that Mephistopheles of US politics, Senator Strom Thurmond, 93 years young. But nowhere in America is the religious right stronger, surely to the profit of Pat Buchanan. Then again, South Carolina is also a showcase of the "New South", exactly where a modern-minded Southern moderate like Mr Alexander or an entrepreneurial optimist like Mr Forbes should thrive.
Hence the high stakes in a state which perfectly illustrates Mr Dole's basic problem - that is, apart from his numbing ineptitude as a campaigner: a splintered "mainstream" field which denies him the chance of one-on- one combat with Mr Buchanan the "extremist" (or "extreme" as Mr Dole now more cautiously describes the former commentator, at the urging of the Christian Coalition which is especially influential in these parts.) How can he drive opponents from the race, and stop them siphoning off votes which in the appointed order of things should be his?
Take for example Richard Lugar. The worthy, eminently nice senior Senator from Indiana is not a factor here, but plods on in the hope of doing well in the New England primaries on 5 March. Steve Forbes, almost certainly, is now in for the duration. Which leaves Mr Alexander. For the former Tennessee Governor, nothing less than a strong second place here is enough. His game plan has always rested on a collapse by Mr Dole. But after the Senate majority leader's wins on the admittedly friendly turf of the Dakotas, and a decent second in Arizona, that seems less probable. Thus far, Mr Alexander has managed to parlay a string of third places into pseudo-victories. But the days of spinning are done. He must start winning, and soon. Failure here, and in Georgia and New England next week, would surely doom him.
Even then, there is no guarantee Alexander voters would transfer their loyalty to Mr Dole. By a whisker, the Kansas Senator remains the favourite. Yet the longer the contest drags on, the more vulnerable he becomes. One factor, at the age of 72, is his physical stamina. Another, even more important, is money. After Mr Forbes had captured Arizona, largely thanks to an advertising blitz costing a reputed $4m (pounds 2.6m), Mr Dole briefly unleashed his famously waspish tongue: "You ought to report what's happening," he tartly admonished reporters, "this guy is trying to buy the election."
It is not that Mr Dole is short of money, simply that he has spent too much of it too fast, confident that by now he would have locked up the nomination. But he has not; and in a couple of weeks he may hit the $37m spending ceiling imposed by federal election rules on primary candidates who accept Government "matching funds" designed to encourage donations by small supporters.
The Dole camp prays that an unrivalled state-by-state organisation will by then have clinched victory, with wins across the South and in New England and New York. If not, he could be in dire trouble. The race could still be wide open when California, whose 165 "winner-take-all" delegates alone amount to one-sixth of the total needed to nominate, votes on 26 March.
So much for all that talk by blase reporters of a tedious Dole walkover. This is the most exciting, unpredictable, fight for the Republican nomination since Gerald Ford edged out Ronald Reagan 20 years ago.