MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Bob Dole lost here last night. But you wouldn't have known it.
Although he didn't declare victory, finishing a close second in the nation's first primary here, the senator from Kansas who is known as the Great Compromiser didn't concede either.
"You're looking at the nominee of the Republican Party," Mr. Dole said, speaking to his supporters after about 70 percent of the vote was in, showing him a single percentage point behind Patrick J. Buchanan. "We have not yet begun to fight."
Mr. Dole, the clear front-runner here until recent weeks, told the crowd that he shook hands with and congratulated Mr. Buchanan -- "as I should" -- in case he wins.
"I don't agree with him, but if he wins, he deserves my congratulations," Mr. Dole said.
Still, the 72-year-old Senate majority leader, who lost here in his two previous presidential bids, acknowledged that for him the night was deja vu all over again -- again.
"Now I know why they call it the Granite State," he said in one of the few lighthearted moments in his speech. "It's so hard to crack."
Looking stern and forlorn, he told hundreds of cheering yet disappointed supporters that they were now engaged in a fight "for the heart and soul of the Republican Party."
Dismissing former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who was thought by the Dole camp to be a more formidable rival for the GOP nomination, Mr. Dole said it was now a "two-man race."
In indirect jabs at Mr. Buchanan, who Mr. Dole has insisted is inciting fear in voters, the senator said, "In the next month, we will decide if we are a party of fear or hope, if we are a party that keeps people out or brings people in, and if we are angry about the present or optimistic about the future."
The race was so close that the Dole supporters who filled the ballroom of the Holiday Inn last night danced on the stage, shouted "we will win," and refused to believe the one-time front-runner had lost his footing here.
"I want to see those numbers," said Jane Lane, a supporter from Keene, after networks declared Mr. Buchanan the victor. "There were no Buchanan supporters in my county."
Rep. Bill Zeliff of New Hampshire shouted from the stage, "We're going to stay all night until we win!"
And Republican Judd Gregg, the state's junior senator, bellowed, "Those networks that called this race at 8:30 have made a serious mistake. We're going to win it here in New Hampshire. We're going to win it across the country."
Those inside the Dole campaign tried to make sense of what, only weeks ago, looked like a sure win for their candidate. Campaign manager Scott Reed blamed publishing magnate Steve Forbes, who blanketed the airwaves here and in Iowa with negative ads, saying they put Mr. Dole in a defensive posture.
TC "We're going to move into a bunch of states now where Steve Forbes has not run millions and millions of dollars of negative ads," said Mr. Reed. "It's a different landscape."
Sheila Burke, Mr. Dole's longtime Senate aide, said the campaign "failed to get the message across. We need to articulate who Bob Dole is, what kind of man he is."
Supporters were disappointed, but most were still optimistic that Mr. Dole would go on to win the nomination.
"It's just going to be harder for him in the elections after New Hampshire," said Rep. Charles Bass, state co-chair of the Dole campaign.
"He'll go on," said Anne Costello of Londonderry. "He's the only one who can beat Bill Clinton. I don't know if inevitability is the right word, but there is no other choice. Buchanan is anti-female, anti-everything. He's appealing to the wrong element in America."
But some in the crowd feared that Mr. Dole was significantly weakened.
"If you don't win New Hampshire, it doesn't look good for the entire nomination," said Eugene Ritzo of Rye, a World War II veteran like Mr. Dole. "The veterans are united, but there aren't that many of us."
For Mr. Dole, New Hampshire has been like a recurring nightmare, the place where twice before his presidential dreams have crumbled. In 1980, he came in seventh among a field of seven candidates, winning less than 1 percent of the vote and dropping out of the race soon after.
Eight years later, propelled out of the Iowa caucuses with a victory, he appeared to be in the lead here as well. But at the last minute, George Bush came out with his "Senator Straddle" ad, branding Mr. Dole a waffler in Congress, and toppled him, 38 percent to 28 percent, killing his candidacy.
This time Mr. Dole, who spent more than any other candidate here including Mr. Forbes, had the backing of 24 Republican governors, including New Hampshire's popular Stephen Merrill.
But it was not enough to stave off Mr. Buchanan's message of economic populism.
Mr. Dole only mentioned Mr. Buchanan by name once in his speech last night, but earlier in the day he went on the radio and denounced the candidate who he feared would make him a three-time loser in New Hampshire.
"Pat has touched a chord here," Mr. Dole said. "He plays off [voters'] fears. I'd rather address their hopes and aspirations."