PHOENIX -- Magazine publisher Steve Forbes was on his way to a startling upset over news commentator Patrick J. Buchanan and Sen. Bob Dole last night in the Arizona primary, throwing the already confused race for the Republican presidential nomination into new turmoil and uncertainty. Greatly overshadowed by the stunning Arizona result were expected primary results in North and South Dakota. Mr. Dole scored victories in both states yesterday.
With 23 percent of the precincts reporting in Arizona, Mr. Forbes had a surprising 37 percent of the vote, and Mr. Dole and Mr. Buchanan were tied at 27 percent. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander was in fourth place, with 7 percent, and Alan L. Keyes and Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana had 1 percent each.
Mr. Forbes was showing unexpected early strength in a state with a large population of higher-income retirees to whom his flat tax proposal, which would not tax dividend and interest income, appeared to have considerable appeal.
Exit polls conducted by Voter News Service, a cooperative of the Associated Press, ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN, found that about 60 percent of Arizona voters questioned said they favor a flat tax over a graduated tax rate requiring people with higher incomes to pay higher taxes. Of these, not quite four out of 10 said they had voted for Mr. Forbes.
Also, one of every four Arizona voters said taxes were the most influential issue. In the Dakotas, concern over the federal budget deficit was the top issue mentioned. And in all three states, voters said "standing up for what he believes in" was the top quality they were looking for in a candidate. Of these, three out of every four said they had voted for Mr. Buchanan.
The 72-year-old Mr. Dole again fared best with his own generation. Slightly more than half his support came from voters over age 60. But six of 10 among the 1,395 voters surveyed said his age was not a factor in how they voted, compared with three in 10 who said it worked against him.
Mr. Dole's two small-state successes in his native Plains States enabled him to claim that last night was successful "as long as I win two out of three." But the real test was in Arizona, where the three candidates and Mr. Alexander vied for the high-stakes, winner-take-all prize.
Mr. Dole won the bulk of the 36 delegates at stake in the Dakotas, distributed in proportion to the vote, with Mr. Buchanan second and Mr. Forbes third. But Arizona's 39 delegates were being awarded on a winner-take-all basis, making it the largest bloc yet available in the 1996 Republican race.
Yesterday, Mr. Buchanan left Arizona, where he has campaigned solidly for the last week, and headed to Marietta, Ga., where he was flooded with adulation at a wildly enthusiastic rally last night.
More than 2,000 supporters packed the Cobb County Civic Center -- holding signs such as "Peasants for Pat," and "Liberals Are Sweating!" -- with hundreds more trying to crash the doors to get in.
"Let me just tell you, Pat is going all the way to the White House," he told the fervent crowd that interrupted him repeatedly with shouts of "Go Pat Go" and "We Love You, Pat!"
Mocking Mr. Dole's showing last night, Mr. Buchanan roared: "Old Beltway Bob yesterday fired one campaign manager and a pollster. I think he's going to fire another one tonight after we're done with it."
Predicting victories for himself in the South, and especially in Georgia, which will hold its primary next week, Mr. Buchanan said: "We're winning. They're having a hissy fit up in Washington.
"Georgia's on fire. This country's on fire."
One supporter in the crowd, Rick Tyler, a pastor from Blue- ridge, Ga., said he thought Mr. Buchanan's strong showing in Arizona would "set the stage" for victories in the South.
"And then the myth of him being unelectable will be fully shattered," Mr. Tyler said.
The Dakota victories were deemed imperative for Mr. Dole because he had won both states handily in his failed 1988 bid for the Republican nomination and he was coming off losses in New Hampshire, where Mr. Buchanan edged him in hard campaigning, and in Delaware, where Mr. Forbes ran ahead as the only active campaigner.
The importance of the Dakotas to Mr. Dole was seen in his decision to campaign there after his New Hampshire defeat and give short shrift to Arizona. He missed a statewide television debate here Thursday night, for which he was second-guessed by his Arizona campaign leaders and sharply criticized by state party leaders. He spent only parts of two days last weekend in Arizona, making few public appearances.
Mr. Buchanan, by contrast, devoted the entire week to Arizona after two brief stops in South Dakota. He stumped around the state, tailoring his trade protectionist message to the concerns of lower- and middle-income American workers about real or threatened competition from neighboring Mexico. He hammered at U.S. trade policies with Mexico, which at one point he called "a lousy government."
He criticized the influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico and called for the establishment of English as the official U.S. language -- positions that drew mixed reactions from many Mexican-Americans in this border state with a strong Hispanic culture and tradition.
Mr. Forbes, after devoting a day to Delaware, came back and put a personal finishing touch on a campaign in which he continued to advocate his flat tax proposal and to run heavy television advertising. Estimates of his Arizona spending exceeded $1 million.
After widespread criticism of Mr. Forbes' heavy use of negative advertising in Iowa, New Hampshire and Arizona, principally against Mr. Dole, Mr. Forbes said he had made a "mistake" and pulled the negative ads. But the Dole campaign complained that they had already taken a toll on the Senate majority leader here.
Mr. Dole immediately blamed his weak finish on Mr. Forbes' spending millions of his own money on television ads to undercut him.
"Forbes spent $4 million, that's what happened," Mr. Dole said.
Of the four candidates, Mr. Forbes made the strongest effort here to encourage voters to cast their ballots by mail -- an option appealing to many older retired voters, who make up a substantial proportion of the Arizona population. He has said that he will remain in the race all the way to the Republican convention in San Diego in August.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Dole supporter, said before the voting that his candidate had a chance to win here if the turnout was high. For all the hoopla surrounding the Arizona primary as the first opportunity for the West to have an early say in determining the party nominee, turnout appeared to be in the neighborhood of 20 percent in early returns.
As in Louisiana, Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr. Buchanan depended heavily on his attacks on free-trade policies that he says threaten the jobs and wages of middle-class working Americans.
The day's results left Mr. Alexander with little to boast about after his self-proclaimed success in finishing third to Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Dole in the New Hampshire primary. His argument, then and since, that Mr. Dole should bow out and let him mount the fight against what he calls "Buchananism" had a hollow ring last night.
The campaign now moves to South Carolina for the primary there on Saturday, with 38 delegates at stake. Mr. Dole's campaign has boasted that it has built a "firewall" there of solid organizational support, led by Gov. David Beasley and former Gov. Carroll Campbell, to halt any slide.
In 1988, Mr. Campbell and the late Lee Atwater, the campaign manager for Vice President George Bush, effectively blunted Mr. Dole's campaign with a similar organizational "firewall."
Mr. Buchanan, having focused single-mindedly on Arizona, now turns his sights on the South, hoping that his protectionist trade message will again resonate with textile and other manufacturing workers who fear job and wage losses as a result of low-cost, low-wage foreign competition.
Along with South Carolina, the candidates must also start campaigning for the May 5 primaries in Georgia (for 42 delegates), Colorado (27), Maryland (32) and the five New England states of Maine (15), Vermont (12), Massachusetts (37), Rhode Island (16) and Connecticut (27).
Mr. Lugar, who sat out yesterday's primaries, is focusing on the New England states as a vehicle for forcing himself into the running.