Bob Dole took command of the Republican race for president Tuesday, racking up eight wins in eight state primaries in the biggest day of voting in the 1996 campaign so far.
Barring a miracle upset in New York on Thursday, many party leaders said Dole had virtually locked up his party's nomination and won the right to challenge President Clinton in November.
Dole won party primaries in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont.
Only in Georgia, the largest state to vote, did Pat Buchanan keep the race close. Buchanan was in second place in most states, with Steve Forbes usually running third and Lamar Alexander a distant fourth.
Buchanan and Forbes vowed to fight on. Alexander reportedly was considering pulling out of the race today.
"We need to get the party together and aim at (President) Clinton," a satisfied Dole said. "So far, the guy has had a free ride while we beat each other up, but that is about to change."
Just one week ago, Dole had appeared vulnerable in the wake of Buchanan's winning New Hampshire and Forbes' winning Arizona.
But on Saturday, Dole turned back Buchanan with a convincing win in South Carolina, setting the stage for Tuesday's landslide of states.
Two other states held party caucuses Tuesday, but Minnesota awarded no delegates to the Republican National Convention, and Washington's results were not released yet.
"We know it's going to be a tough battle, friends," Buchanan told supporters in Buffalo, N.Y. But he promised to stay in the race all the way to the convention.
Buchanan predicted he will do well in the Washington results. His supporters there were angry that state officials decided not to release the results at once.
Forbes, meanwhile, remained as Dole's closest rival in the New York primary to be held Thursday. Forbes is the only candidate on the ballot with Dole statewide.
"We can win in New York and nationwide," Forbes insisted.
Alexander, who campaigned in Florida on Tuesday and spent the night in Clearwater, said during the day he would quit if he didn't beat Dole in this state next week.
But Alexander was under heavy pressure from party leaders to pull out even earlier, helping to unify the party behind Dole.
"I haven't changed any plans," Alexander told reporters as he arrived at the Belleview Mido Resort in Clearwater Tuesday night. "If I do, you'll be the first to know."
Dole's success was enough to knock at least one candidate out of the race, however.
U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who never finished higher than fifth or sixth in any primary, is expected to announce the end of his campaign at noon today.
Tuesday's wins gave Dole an overwhelming lead in the number of delegates awarded so far to the party convention in San Diego.
The Associated Press estimated that based on partial results Tuesday night, Dole was leading the race with 223 delegates, followed by Forbes with 63, Buchanan with 41, Alexander with 10, and Alan Keyes with 1.
Unifying the party
Tuesday's wins were a strong sign that Dole is finally beginning to unify the Republican Party and claim the nomination that, only a few months ago, had seemed so inevitable.
He ran into early trouble with Buchanan, who drew support both from moral conservatives and voters concerned about losing their jobs and unfair foreign trade.
South Carolina was the turning point, and it set up Tuesday's win in Georgia. Dole won solidly even among voters who ranked moral concerns as their top issue.
"I think he pushed his rhetoric a bit too far," Warren Tompkins, a senior consultant for Dole's southeastern campaign, said of Buchanan. "I think they were turned off by his manner of playing off people's fears."
Tompkins said Buchanan's protectionist campaign, based on exploiting resentment of closing textiles mills, was irrelevant in a New South filled with new industry. "Maybe in the '60s," he said. "Not the '90s."
Sadie Fields, Buchanan's state director in Georgia, said voters are used to "mush" from politicians these days, not a strongly worded message like Buchanan's. "The American public is not accustomed to that from politicians," she said.
Throughout the states that voted Tuesday, voters of all stripes were coming home to Dole as the candidate with the strongest chance against Clinton in November.
At a polling place in the Garden Hills section on the northside of Atlanta, the senior citizens who voted were decidedly Dole supporters. If Dole's skeptics see a tired old politician, the voters in Garden Hills saw the trustworthiness and experience they demand in a president.
"He's a leader. We just like him and we've been liking him for years and why should we change now," senior citizen Vera Thomas said in her quiet Atlanta drawl.
"I've watched his career and I believe he will be the one to take this country on a strong and steady course," added Reba Pylant, 88.
"As for Alexander," she volunteered, "he had too little of what Buchanan had too much of _ that's fire and brimstone."
Another voter, Martha Haymaker, said she was with Dole because "I think he's less dangerous than the rest of them." Dismissing Buchanan's social agenda, she said, "I don't believe in telling other people how to live."
Coming up next
Dole now has a chance to shut the door completely on his rivals in a series of large-state primaries.
Dole is challenged in New York only by Forbes in all 31 of the state's congressional districts; Buchanan is on the ballot in two-thirds of them.
On Tuesday, called "Super Tuesday," Florida and Texas lead a pack of states that may well decide the nomination.
"Florida plays the undertaker role for all the balance of the candidates, except Dole," Tom Slade, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said Tuesday. "The final nails in the coffin will be driven in on Super Tuesday."
Slade said Dole might break 50 percent of the vote in Florida.
Buchanan and Forbes, he said, have faded in Florida, as with the rest of the country.
"It's beginning to sober up after a rather intoxicating flirtation, both with Buchanan and Forbes," Slade said. "After that flirtation, I think the trend of Republicans is to go back to the foundation of a proven leader and proceed with Dole."
in Tampa Bay
Buchanan is scheduled to appear today at a rally at 1 p.m. at the West Shore Marriott, 1001 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa.
Barring a decision to pull out of the race after Tuesday's primaries, Alexander was scheduled to appear at 9 a.m. today at a rally at the Bay Area Outlet Mall at the corner of U.S. 19 and Roosevelt Boulevard in Largo.
_ Information from Times staff writer Curtis Krueger and the Associated Press was used in this report.