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Buchanan heading for slim victory // GOP candidates fan out in search of the big win

They thought it would be over by now.

Instead, the remaining Republican candidates for president fan out across the country today searching for the next big win to boost them toward nomination.

For Sen. Bob Dole, the one-time front-runner who thought this nominating season would be quick and easy, the murky finish in New Hampshire Tuesday means weeks of swatting down two pesky challengers.

For Pat Buchanan, the insurgent who was leading most of the evening, and for third-place finisher Lamar Alexander, today could be the start of something great.

"We are going on to South Carolina. We are going on to the nomination. We are going on to the White House," Buchanan told his supporters late Tuesday, declaring victory. "We have conducted a three-week political campaign that will go down in legend."

It's all good news for Floridians and voters in several other states who will be treated to lavish attention and a full throttled debate of the issues.

Most analysts agree the race now will last at least another month, with major battleground states such as Florida, New York, South Carolina and Texas heavily influencing the outcome. Alexander predicts Florida's March 12 primary, with its 98 delegates, will be decisive.

Six months ago, few expected a drawn out nominating season with three, and possibly four, candidates still alive. Last fall, Dole looked inevitable _ if not invincible.

Now, he is bruised and faces a grueling round of primaries that will tax his bank account and energy.

"Immediately, people will be looking at Dole to see how he holds up," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. "Everybody is watching for tiredness, weariness."

Aware of that, the Dole camp is wasting no time demonstrating it is running a nationwide campaign. The 72-year-old Senate majority leader will hit five states in the next three days.

Buchanan left the state shortly after the votes were counted Tuesday. He stops in South Carolina today, which has its primary March 2, and then he goes on to Colorado and Arizona.

Alexander, the plaid-shirted former governor of Tennessee, heads off to Georgia and South Carolina. But his real mission is behind the scenes: He needs money to remain competitive.

"He doesn't have a core like Buchanan that can be mobilized from the pulpits, and he doesn't have the organization and money Dole has," said Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University. "If he's going to go anywhere he's got to get bucks. He might have to change his shirt; these are formal events."

Alexander has been competitive in part because of Mel Sembler of St. Petersburg, a top national Republican fund-raiser and Alexander's national finance co-chairman. Sembler said 240 supporters will participate in a conference call today with the goal of raising about $1-million.

Steve Forbes, meanwhile, is vowing to dump more of his own cash into his presidential quest. He is the only candidate visiting Delaware before its primary on Saturday.

"This is the second inning," said former New Hampshire Sen. Gordon Humphrey, who supports the millionaire publisher. "We're going extra innings." Humphrey argues Dole is "mortally wounded," Buchanan is "too belligerent" and Alexander has "no ideas."

Many independent analysts agree with everything Humphrey says except his conclusion that Forbes wins the war of attrition.

"From New Hampshire, for the next month, over 50 percent of the Republican delegates will be picked in the next 30 days," Wayne said. "That benefits the guy with the most money, organization and endorsements."

That, he said, still makes Dole the front-runner, albeit a damaged one.

"He may win the nomination but it hurts him in the long run _ the fact that he couldn't waltz through this thing with big numbers," said Gary Porter, chairman of the North Dakota GOP, which holds its nominating contest Feb. 27. "It's the same problem Bush faced: 3 EARLY TAMPA

As the contest moves on each candidate will refine his pitch and search for friendly territory.

Look for Dole to continue his push in South Carolina, said Rice University professor Earl Black.

"That's been designed as a fire wall for Dole based on the Bush model of '88," said Black, an expert on southern politics. Eight years ago, Bush lost Iowa, won New Hampshire and then used a victory in South Carolina to sweep the South.

Buchanan is looking for states with strong religious ties and economic concerns.

"He will have more difficulty the further west he goes," MacManus of USF predicted. "Both of his messages will have to be toned down a bit."

His big opening in the next few weeks may be Arizona, where Buchanan's anti-immigration appeals have saliency. That could boost him in Florida, too.

Alexander, a son of the South, will look for regional opportunities. But his greatest hope is less geographic and more thematic.

"He would have to go back and emphasize his electability argument," Black said. "I don't think Alexander has the kinds of issues that make him stand out on his own; he's a comparison candidate."

In focus groups in Florida, MacManus said, "the people who liked Alexander were talking about education and the environment. People who like Dole say it is his integrity and experience. For Buchanan, it's the Christian right part of the state and farm people because of (the) GATT and NAFTA" trade agreements that hurt tomato farmers.

With each bizarre twist and turn in this Republican contest, there appears to be one early winner, said the academics.

"It's to Clinton's advantage to have the Republicans demonstrate they can't find a candidate or they are seriously considering Buchanan," Black said.

Noting Buchanan's extreme views make him an unlikely nominee, Wayne agreed. "What this shows is the weakness of a Dole candidacy, just as the Buchanan challenge to Bush showed the weaknesses of Bush," he said.

"Neither Bush nor Dole had a core of passionate supporters. In the general election, they hold their partisans but I don't see how they reach out much and extend beyond them."