WASHINGTON -- Presidential campaigns seem to drag on forever. Not this year.
Despite a large field of candidates, the fight for the Republican nomination could be astonishingly brief -- perhaps as short as eight days.
The federal budget struggle has kept attention focused on the Washington debate and off the campaign trail. That, some believe, has worked to the advantage of Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader and the clear front-runner in the race.
"Gingrich and Dole and Clinton have so dominated the political landscape for the better part of a year now that it has been difficult for anyone else to break through," says Jay Morgan of Atlanta, who was southern coordinator of California Gov. Pete Wilson's short-lived presidential campaign.
In less than a month, voting will begin, with the lead-off Louisiana caucuses on Feb. 6. Some Republicans think it could effectively end by late February or the first week in March, when a big batch of states, including Maryland, hold primaries.
At the outside, politicians say, the contest will be wrapped up by late March or early April.
That may be a relief to millions who are bored or fed up with traditional politics. But it's a worry to Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour.
Mr. Barbour is concerned that this winter's unprecedented crush of primaries and caucuses "will go off like a string of firecrackers. It could have an adverse effect, not only on our party but on the body politic."
Among his fears: that Republican voters won't have time to give the candidates careful consideration, especially if their first choice drops out early, because the primaries will come at such a fast clip. So many states have squeezed into the early weeks that most of the delegates will be chosen before the end of March, much earlier than ever before.
"It's got the potential to be over almost before it begins," says Rich Bond, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a Dole supporter. "The opportunity still exists for somebody to break out of the pack [and topple Mr. Dole], but it doesn't appear that will happen."
Gramm, Alexander in wings
If Mr. Dole falters, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander are regarded as having the best chance to become the nominee. At least for now, though, both have been eclipsed by an outsider with deep pockets, publisher Malcolm S. Forbes Jr., who moved into second place in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls after spending millions of his personal fortune on campaign commercials promoting a flat tax idea. "The unknown is Steve Forbes and his money," says Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster. With his virtually unlimited bankroll, Mr. Forbes could stay in the race long after other candidates are forced to quit. His rivals call Mr. Forbes unelectable, but he could well make it much more difficult for them to compete if he does well in anti-tax New Hampshire.
Republican strategists caution that, even though no one is paying attention to the race right now, people will soon begin voting, and that could quickly change the balance of the contest. An eight-day stretch in mid-February -- from the Feb. 12 Iowa caucuses to the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 20 -- could determine the shape, and duration, of the campaign.
Mr. Dole, the strong favorite in Iowa and New Hampshire, has contended that if he won big in both states, the competition effectively would be over.
"It might, unfortunately, be," agrees Paul Wilson, a Republican political consultant who has developed a computer model of the nomination process.
Until a few months ago, Mr. Wilson had a theory that a nominee wouldn't be chosen until the August convention in San Diego. Now, he predicts, the winner will be known "by the end of Super Tuesday [March 12], that's for sure."
Most Republicans seem to think that Mr. Dole will head the ticket against President Clinton, unopposed in the Democratic primaries. But the Kansas senator was the Republican front-runner once before. In 1988, he upset George Bush in Iowa, only to lose the lead -- and the nomination -- a week later in New Hampshire.
Dole as front-runner
This time, though, he's in much better shape, thanks to his formidable performance in the mostly invisible campaign of 1995.
Last year, the Republican candidates -- eight are left -- raised more than $100 million. They also spent most of it, building campaign organizations, traveling the country and airing TV and radio commercials in an effort to gain advantage in the early battleground states.
The going got too rough for two of them, Governor Wilson and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who dropped out after failing to attract enough money or support. Others, including Colin Powell and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, never jumped in -- but their deliberations stole the spotlight and made it much harder for the declared candidates to become known.
By raising about $25 million last year, Mr. Dole won the money race (in recent Republican campaigns, the candidate who pulled in the most money the year before the election has captured the nomination) and used it to build what is, by all accounts, the best organization on the Republican side. "The Republican Party is more orderly than the Democratic Party, and we have a greater tendency to nominate our front-runner, particularly when the front-runner is a commanding figure and particularly when he has run before and has a base," says Roger Stone, a Republican strategist who was Mr. Specter's campaign manager. "Dole is also the only Republican whose support is broad enough to win this thing. He's the only Republican Jesse Helms and Bill Cohen can both support."
His opponents insist that Mr. Dole's support is still soft. And no matter how well the Kansan does in next-door Iowa next month, whoever runs best against him there will become his main challenger in New Hampshire.
Gramm hopes for Iowa
Mr. Gramm, who must contend with Patrick J. Buchanan in the Louisiana caucuses, is counting on a second-place Iowa finish to put him into the finals against Mr. Dole, aides say. Having failed to stir much enthusiasm in New Hampshire, the Texan may need a quick victory somewhere else -- the South Carolina primary on March 2 could be his last, best shot -- to keep his chances alive.
Four other candidates, Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, California Rep. Robert K. Dornan, former Reagan administration official Alan L. Keyes of Maryland and Illinois industrialist Morry Taylor, are given little or no chance of winning. But they could help splinter the anti-Dole vote.
The apathy factor
Besides the Dole juggernaut, his rivals also must contend with what appears to be a high degree of voter apathy, even in the early primary states.
"Anybody looking for the presidential campaign to offer excitement will be sadly disappointed," predicts Mr. Morgan, the Republican strategist from Georgia. "There just doesn't seem to be a whole lot going on, mainly because of the expectation that Dole has a lock on the nomination."
Louisiana caucuses .............. Feb. 6
Iowa caucuses ................... Feb. 12
New Hampshire primary ........... Feb. 20
Delaware primary ................ Feb. 24
Arizona, North Dakota and South Dakota primaries ...... Feb. 27
South Carolina primary .......... March 2
Puerto Rico primary ............. March 3
Maryland, Georgia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine and Colorado primaries, Minnesota caucuses ............... March 5
New York primary ................ March 7
Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Oregon primaries ................ March 12