MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Three months ago, the wise guys of American politics had the Republican campaign all figured out. With Colin L. Powell and Jack Kemp on the sidelines, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole appeared to have a clear path to the nomination.
Indeed, the conventional wisdom agreed that, barring some gaffe of the kind he had committed in the past, Mr. Dole might lock it up by winning the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
But today, as voters go to the polling places here, Mr. Dole's stature as the front-runner appears to be hanging by a thread, although he has committed no such gaffe. His performance has been weak enough that even if he wins here, he will have raised serious questions about his viability against President Clinton in the general election.
Meanwhile, the competition for the nomination has been transformed. The issues that seemed to matter in December have been forgotten as first Steve Forbes and then Patrick J. Buchanan have become the chief protagonists in the political drama.
And the campaign has become as much a debate over process TTC as over policy, with the central question seeming to be who has been following the most negative and destructive strategy.
Notably missing from the debate are the issues -- tax reduction, the balanced budget, the transfer of power to the states -- that have been dominant in Washington since the Republicans captured control of Congress in 1994.
Instead, if there is a pivotal issue at the 11th hour, it is Mr. Buchanan's insistence that Americans are feeling a pervasive "economic insecurity" largely because of free-trade agreements -- the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade -- that have been supported overwhelmingly by Republicans in Congress.
Acknowledging Mr. Buchanan's role in setting the agenda, Mr. Dole said on the final day of the campaign that, "I didn't realize that jobs and trade and what makes America work would become a big issue in the last few days of this campaign."
In fact, Mr. Dole's problem throughout the campaign has been an inability to use his stature as the front-runner to set the agenda for the debate -- to decide which issues should be critical in choosing a nominee.
Relies on testimonials
Instead, he has relied almost entirely on the testimony of other Republicans who have endorsed him, most prominently the popular governor of New Hampshire, Stephen Merrill.
On the final day of the campaign, Mr. Dole was using most heavily a commercial featuring Mr. Merrill in which Mr. Dole himself never appears. That flies in the face of an axiom of American politics that candidates in the end must "ask for the order" -- that is, appeal directly for support.
Mr. Buchanan was given the chance to put Mr. Dole on the defensive only because of the role played by Mr. Forbes -- or, more accurately, Mr. Forbes' money -- in December and January.
The multimillionaire publisher spent more than $20 million of his own money, much of it on a saturation schedule of TV commercials promoting his own advocacy of a flat tax and attacking Mr. Dole as the quintessential "Washington politician" the voters scorn.
The drumbeat of attacks on Mr. Dole sent his negatives soaring. His share of the projected vote in opinion polls plunged from 50 percent down to 35 and then 30 and now 25. Most significantly, the notion of the inevitability of his nomination was lost.
As Lamar Alexander put it in an interview, "Forbes may have robbed Dole of his one chance to be nominated, which was to win it before it started."
The Forbes offensive eventually elicited a reply-in-kind from the Dole campaign that, in turn, evoked a conspicuous backlash against negative politics among Republicans in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
And that backlash provided openings for both Mr. Buchanan, the self-anointed spokesman for the working class, and for Mr. Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee who quickly positioned himself as the "positive" candidate juxtaposed against the mudslinging.
The result is that polls now show Mr. Buchanan in a dead heat with Mr. Dole, and Mr. Alexander close on their heels.
"This thing is really rolling," Mr. Buchanan said as the final hours approached.
"We've got a very hot campaign," Mr. Alexander said. "We know we're going up. We don't know where we are. What is different is that Dole has done worse than I expected."
Is party damaged?
For the Republican Party, however, the question is not just who wins the nomination but how much damage is done along the way.
One thing is clear: The storied 11th Commandment promulgated by Gaylord Parkinson, a dentist and Republican state chairman in California in the 1960s, and quickly embraced by Ronald Reagan -- "Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican" -- has been repealed for this campaign.
Going into the final hours, the Dole campaign is running a frenzy of television commercials attacking Mr. Buchanan as an "extremist" and Mr. Alexander as a closet tax-and-spend liberal.
What the Senate leader has not done, however, is produce a rationale for his own candidacy beyond his seniority and experience in Washington.
Mr. Dole may still ride out the storm and win here. But no one imagines anymore that he still has a clear road to the nomination.