CHARLESTON, S. C. — Now comes the hard part for Bob Dole.
The sprawling, self-conscious and hard-as-hickory Super Tuesday South of March 8. The South where states ganged together to speak with a loud and more-or-less single voice in the nomination process this year.
Dole, the Senate GOP leader from Kansas, crushed all comers in nearby Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota. "This proves we are a national candidacy," Dole insisted Wednesday.
But that claim remains to be proven convincingly, and in a region that is not as friendly as his native Midwest.
Bush Has Strong Support
Vice President George Bush has built a mighty base of support in the South, and insurgent former religious broadcaster Pat Robertson calls it his backyard.
Just as Southerners wanted, they are in control.
Dole's strategy seems to hinge on the "muddle factor"--the hope that results in the 17 states where Republican voting is held March 8 will be muddled enough to deny Bush the knockout he wants.
"It's going to be relatively difficult for the Bush forces to come out with more than a bare majority, at best, with the other delegates split between Robertson and Dole," Dole adviser David Keene said.
This reasoning then puts Dole back home in the heartland, looking to rebound in the March 15 Illinois primary and in Wisconsin April 5.
"We're going to have to think about the long haul," Keene said. ". . . Every day that Bush doesn't put it away gives Republicans in other states time to think they don't have to put up with this guy if they don't want to."
After his twin victories Tuesday, Dole traveled South to campaign for a day in South Carolina. The vote there is set for March 5, the Saturday before Super Tuesday.
Seen as a Donnybrook
South Carolina shapes up as a donnybrook. Each of the three leading GOP contenders has raised the stakes by committing time and resources.
Dole is the last to jump fully into the South Carolina fray. He obtained the surprise endorsement of legendary South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond on Monday. The two traveled the state together Wednesday for a series of press conferences in four cities.
Campaign strategists say they believe Dole is still a distant third behind Bush and Robertson. When asked about his expectations, Dole grinned and replied: "They're increasing."
Thurmond not only is a popular figure in his own state but--importantly to Dole--a symbol of conservatism in the Deep South. Election exit polls continue to show Dole running weakest among voters describing themselves as strongly conservative.
"I know the South is very important," Dole said. "I want the people to understand all over the South that Bob Dole is the conservative in the race."
Credit Thurmond with an assist.
"Bob Dole is the common sense conservative," Thurmond said. "He's got his feet on the ground."
As if to underscore the critical importance of the hard-rock conservative vote in the South, Dole adviser Keene hinted strongly there would be more to the campaign than just talking about Dole.
'Wearing Cloak of Reagan'
"So far, George Bush has stumbled through life wearing the cloak of Ronald Reagan, making him appear more conservative than he is," Keene said. "If we have our way, we are going to snatch that cloak from him and let people see the real George Bush."
From the looks of the opening cloak-grabbing, however, the Dole campaign lacks a powerful issue to demonstrate its contention.
Dole at one point offered a distinction that would hardly seem to separate conservatives from would-be pretenders--shades of viewpoint on the line-item budget veto.
Dole noted that Bush supports a line-item veto to allow the President to cut spending and will seek to get it enacted into law. Of himself, Dole said he, too, shared the goal, "but I think we already have a line-item veto in the Constitution."
PRESIDENTIAL DELEGATE COUNTS
Here is the latest breakdown of the presidential preference of the delegates to the Democratic and Republican national conventions, as compiled by the Associated Press. The preferences are based on delegates' public statements or binding state laws or party rules.
Dole picks up all 18 of South Dakota's Republican delegates, because no other GOP candidate reached the 20% threshold to qualify for delegates. The Democratic primary was nonbinding, and delegates will not be allocated until a statewide caucus is held March 12; if the caucus accepts the results of the primary, Gephardt will receive 9 delegates and Dukakis 6.
The Minnesota straw polls were nonbinding, and delegates will be chosen at county and district conventions in the coming months.
Republicans Bush: 61
Needed to nominate: 1,139 Total delegate votes: 2,277 Chosen thus far: 174 Yet to be chosen: 2,103 Democrats Uncommitted: 278.40
Needed to nominate: 2,082 Total delegate votes: 4,162 Chosen thus far: 415.25 Yet to be chosen: 3,746.75