Victory gives Dole southern comfort

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With his thumping victory in South Carolina, Bob Dole may at last have put his troubles behind him and set himself on course to clinch - perhaps within the next three weeks - the Republican presidential nomination to face President Clinton this autumn.

Predictions have been a risky business in this topsy-turvy Republican contest, but suddenly everything seems set fair for Mr Dole, whose shortcomings as a campaigner will be masked by his sheer organisational strength in the packed primary schedule ahead, culminating on 26 March in California, by which time the battle may already have been decided.

With all votes counted in South Carolina, the Senate majority leader had 45 per cent, against 29 per cent for the conservative populist Pat Buchanan, and 13 per cent for Steve Forbes. Trailing in a poor fourth was the former Tennessee Governor, Lamar Alexander, with 10 per cent.

If Mr Dole was the undisputed winner, showing strength even among religious conservatives who were expected to side overwhelmingly with Mr Buchanan, the biggest loser was Mr Alexander, whose campaign is in danger of complete collapse after a string of third, fourth, and fifth-place finishes. Indeed Newt Gingrich, the House Speaker, yesterday urged him to acknowledge the inevitable and withdraw.

Mr Alexander refuses, pinning his last hopes on a strong performance in Georgia, the biggest of the eight states which hold primaries tomorrow. But there was no hiding the relief in the Republican hierarchy that after Mr Dole's early stumbles and Mr Buchanan's unnerving surge, order finally appears to be returning to the political universe.

For the first time in a month, the race looks as the party bosses intended it should: Bob Dole the clear front-runner and the rest struggling to keep afloat. "We need to stop chewing each other apart and concentrate on Bill Clinton," said Mr Gingrich, who is officially neutral in the struggle.

Those words will not be heeded by Mr Forbes, who will soldier on to the San Diego convention, and has the personal fortune from his publishing empire to do it. Otherwise though, South Carolina suggests that across the country, Mr Buchanan cannot expand his following beyond a core support of between 25 and 30 per cent; and that even in the "New South" of which he claims to be the natural representative, Mr Alexander is anything but irresistible.

Even so, the Dole juggernaut, reinvigorated by last week's campaign staff shake-up, could yet run off the rails this week. Tomorrow, although he looks safe in Colorado, Massachusetts and the four other New England states which are holding the so-called "Yankee Primary", he could still be upset by either Mr Buchanan or Mr Alexander in Georgia, throwing back into doubt Mr Dole's ability to sweep the South on "Super Tuesday" a week later, when 362 delegates are at stake - more than a third of the 996 needed to secure the nomination.

In the New York primary, where 102 delegates are at stake - the season's biggest prize yet - Mr Dole as usual has the backing of the Republican machine and the party establishment from Governor George Pataki down. But Mr Forbes has cracked New York's tortuous electoral rules to get his name on the ballot across the entire state, and with the help of $1m of late advertising could yet cause a surprise.