BEDFORD, N.H. -- The New Hampshire primary is supposed to be a defining event in American politics. But this time the results have only compounded and exacerbated the problems of the Republican Party.
Rather than narrowing the field of prospective presidential nominees to one or two, as has been the case in every previous Republican primary here, the voters have rejected the candidate of the party establishment, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, in favor of a candidate, Patrick J. Buchanan, whom 57 percent of the voters found unacceptably extremist based on exit polls last night.
And they have given just enough support to sustain a third candidate, Lamar Alexander, whom many of them consider unreliable, if not downright liberal, on cultural issues.
The result is that the party is now facing a prolonged struggle among the three to amass the 996 delegates needed to win the nomination at the national convention in San Diego in August -- a struggle that will harden the divisions that were so evident in the New Hampshire primary electorate.
For Mr. Dole, the first imperative is to stop the bleeding. Two months ago he held a dominant position in primary polls, one so strong that the inevitability of his nomination was one of the principal elements of the case for his candidacy. Now he has been robbed of that prime asset by still another humiliation in the Granite State.
Safety net of sorts
The Senate leader does have a safety net of sorts for the weeks ahead. He has enough money to run simultaneously in several major states at once. And he still has commitments from dozens, perhaps hundreds, of party leaders across the country who have a stake in his success.
But atmospherics are important in political campaigns, and the word in the political community for weeks has been that Mr. Dole was running a dreadful campaign even though he had not committed another of his celebrated gaffes. Now all those doubts about him have been confirmed.
The operative question is whether those remaining assets are enough to sustain Mr. Dole in a comeback in the next round of primaries. Or, if not, whether Mr. Alexander can emerge as the alternative to Mr. Buchanan.
The notion of someone on a white horse saving the party with a late candidacy -- Colin L. Powell, for example -- is fanciful. Filing deadlines for most primaries already have passed.
The political arithmetic is critical. The returns so far and the polling data all suggest that Mr. Buchanan has a core of support in the party that makes up a significant minority but not a majority of Republicans. But in 18 states and the District of Columbia, delegates are awarded on a winner-take-all basis, which means Mr. Buchanan could carry them in other multicandidate primaries.
The five New England states that will conduct the "Yankee primary" on March 5 -- the same day as the Maryland primary -- all award their combined 107 delegates on a winner-take-all basis, although Maine requires a winner to attain a simple majority of the vote. The richest winner-take-all prize is the 165 delegates of California, 17 percent of the total needed for the nomination,at stake in a March 26 primary.
By the same token, if Mr. Buchanan were confronted by a single opponent, his prospects in those primaries would be dimmed. So the question is whether Mr. Dole or Mr. Alexander can eliminate the other and juxtapose himself against Mr. Buchanan.
Mr. Alexander was quick to seize on that possibility. The results in New Hampshire show, he said, "that Dole is much weaker than expected" and should "step aside" so he can run against Mr. Buchanan.
But the former Tennessee governor has a problem of his own in the continuing presence of magazine publisher Steve Forbes, who managed 12 percent yesterday to finish fourth and vowed to continue. Opinion polls have shown consistently that Mr. Alexander and Mr. Forbes were drawing from the same pool of voters looking for the true "outsider" other than Mr. Buchanan.
Mr. Alexander also must raise enough money to compete in 30 states in the next five weeks, meaning through the Super Tuesday primaries March 12, the Rust Belt primary March 19 and the California primary March 26, by which time 64 percent of all the delegates will have been chosen.
But Mr. Alexander and his strategists concede that he won't be able to compete at the same level of intensity everywhere. Thus, in the March 5 tests, he will spend most of his resources on New England and Georgia. The Maryland primary, although on the ostensibly "targeted" states list, will get less attention because campaign strategists believe they cannot afford to buy television commercials heavily in both Baltimore and Washington.
Money not enough
Mr. Dole has no comparable money problem, with several million still on hand and the ability to raise still more. But the results have shown so far that Mr. Dole's money is not enough to overcome his other problems as a candidate.
Although he is now in a position to raise money rapidly, Mr. Buchanan needs far less than his rivals. He runs his campaign out of his hat, with his sister as campaign manager and a couple of longtime aides at his side. But he has always been adept at exploiting what politicians call "earned media," meaning coverage by the news media. The celebrity he will now enjoy will make that even easier in the weeks ahead.
In the long run, the most significant result of the New Hampshire verdict and the primacy -- for however long it lasts -- of Mr. Buchanan is the increased likelihood of bitter divisions over highly emotional issues. Mr. Buchanan probably won here primarily on his persona rather than any specific list of issues. But he is an adamant hard-liner on cultural issues, such as gay rights and abortion rights, and is not likely to go quietly. Even if he fails to win enough delegates for the nomination, he obviously will be a vocal and influential force at the convention.
Mr. Dole will argue that he is the one candidate who may bridge the differences among Republican conservatives. But first he has to persuade them to vote for him.