MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Iowa Republicans have set the stage for a prolonged and potentially scarring contest for the Republican presidential nomination.
The failure of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole to poll even 30 percent of the vote in the precinct caucuses will reinforce the doubts within the political community -- and among many GOP leaders -- that the Kansas Republican can evoke zealous enthusiasm among voters.
Now, in the New Hampshire primary next week, he faces challenges to his primacy founded on both ideological and generational grounds. As a result, the prospect for the kind of quick knockout Mr. Dole had hoped to score in New Hampshire seems dim.
At first blush, the most serious threat to Mr. Dole would appear to come from conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who finished only 3 percentage points behind him in Iowa.
At the very least, Mr. Buchanan's showing was strong enough to provide fresh assurances, if any were needed, that he would carry the contest through the primaries in the South and industrial Midwest.
But Lamar Alexander's third place was respectable enough to give weight to his argument for a change -- essentially that Mr. Dole is too [See Analysis, old and too wedded to the inside baseball of Washington politics to defeat President Clinton in November.
The former Tennessee governor also is well-positioned to exploit the case he made late in the Iowa campaign that the other candidates are mired in negative campaigns attacking one another, while Republican voters are looking for a message of optimism about the future.
For Mr. Alexander, however, the most valuable product of the Iowa results may be the fact that much of the underbrush has now been cleared from the political landscape. That, in turn, means Mr. Alexander can expect far more -- and more respectful -- attention than he has managed to win as part of the pack of also-rans.
Although Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana may persist so they can appear on a televised debate here this week, they both came to the end of the road so far as having any realistic chance of competing for the nomination. The same can be said of the fringe candidates.
The one puzzle is the future, if any, of Steve Forbes, the wealthy magazine publisher who became a political sensation by spending something over $20 million and shooting up in the New Hampshire opinion polls here -- only to flame out in Iowa with only 10 percent of the vote.
Although Mr. Forbes insisted he had made a "very credible showing," his vote in Iowa fell so far short of expectations that few professionals would expect him to bounce back here simply by spending more money.
Mr. Dole's performance continued a pattern that has been evident all through the preliminaries to the Republican campaign -- the Senate leader falling somewhat short of what a strong front-runner might be expected to do. That happened in a straw vote in Iowa last summer and again at another in Florida in November.
By contrast, Mr. Buchanan has built a pattern of exceeding expectations, as he did in winning the Louisiana caucuses last week and running a strong second here.
But Mr. Buchanan may not be as formidable everywhere as he proved to be in Iowa, where he came away with more than 40 percent of the caucus voters who identified themselves as Christian conservatives, the same people who made up the heart of his support in Louisiana.
The religious conservatives are far less a factor in New Hampshire, as television evangelist Pat Robertson discovered in when he ran second in Iowa with 25 percent of the vote but dropped to a distant third here eight days later.
And Mr. Buchanan lacks something Mr. Dole can rely upon as a safety net -- a network of regular Republican leaders committed to his candidacy.
By contrast, Mr. Alexander has yet to demonstrate that he has such a devoted following. The question in the next week is whether he can convert the instant celebrity he has earned in Iowa into an even stronger performance in the primary here -- one impressive enough to bring him the campaign money he needs to go on.
There is, of course, ample precedent for such a "bounce" in New Hampshire from Iowa. As Mr. Alexander was quick to point out last night, George Bush won the New Hampshire primary in 1988 after finishing third with that same 18 percent of the vote Mr. Alexander received last night.
The one thing that seems clearest is that there are more battles still to be fought than most Republican leaders expected only a ** few weeks ago when it appeared it was only a matter of two or three rounds until Mr. Dole would have locked up the nomination.
Now the party must look at the March 5 "Yankee primary" in which five New England states -- as well as Maryland and Georgia -- will vote, the March 12 Super Tuesday contests in Texas, Florida and several other Southern states, and the March 19 Rust Belt primary in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin. It is now even possible that the situation will remain unresolved until the March 26 winner-take-all California primary.
The message from Iowa is, in short, that these Republicans have miles to go.