And voters in South Carolina went to the polls today in the first of a dozen states holding primaries and caucuses in the next five days.
Taking dead aim at challengers Patrick J. Buchanan and Steve Forbes, Mr. Dole told a small rally audience in downtown Providence, "This is serious business.
"We're not electing a talk-show host. We're not electing somebody who publishes a magazine. We're electing somebody run the country."
The Kansas Republican was buoyed by both published and private opinion polls showing him leading both in South Carolina and in at least three of the five New England states that will hold the so-called Yankee primary Tuesday -- findings that if confirmed by the voters could once again establish Mr. Dole as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
The pace for all the surviving Republican candidates -- including former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee as well as Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Forbes -- was dizzying.
Primaries are scheduled Tuesday in Colorado, Georgia and Maryland, as well as the five New England states, and two days later in New York.
There are also caucuses Tuesday in both Minnesota and Washington, but they were being largely overlooked by candidates pressed for both time and money.
Taken together, the 12 states will choose 416 delegates, more than one-fifth of the 1,990 who will vote at the Republican convention in San Diego next August. (The Puerto Rico primary with its 14 delegates takes place tomorrow.)
A week later, on so-called Super Tuesday, primaries will choose 353 more delegates in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Oregon.
The stakes in South Carolina and the primaries next Tuesday are particularly high for Mr. Dole and Mr. Alexander.
After losing, albeit narrowly, in both the high-profile New Hampshire and Arizona contests, the Senate leader needs to reverse the pattern of falling far short of the high expectations for his candidacy and to begin accumulating delegates toward the 996 needed for the nomination.
For Mr. Alexander, the pressure is on to demonstrate that he has the potential to be a serious challenger down the primary road after running third in New Hampshire and a weak fourth in Arizona.
"We've got to win somewhere," said Thomas J. Rath, a senior adviser to the Alexander campaign.
The Alexander strategy is to win enough to keep his campaign viable until those Southern primaries now only 10 days ahead -- particularly in Florida, where the Tennessee Republican has made a heavy investment in money and organization.
But he recognizes that continuing shows of weakness will add force to calls for Mr. Alexander to withdraw and give Mr. Dole a clearer field against Mr. Buchanan.
Toward that end, Mr. Alexander has poured additional money -- his campaign raised more than $350,000 in two days early this week -- into television commercials running in New England and depicting the contest as a two-man race between his own "fresh ideas" and the resume of Mr. Dole.
But Mr. Dole has refused to cooperate.
In appearances here and earlier in Hartford, he ignored Mr. Alexander and concentrated his fire instead on Mr. Buchanan, whom he denounced for advocating protectionist trade policies that would "build a wall around America," and Mr. Forbes, calling his proposed 17 percent flat tax "pie in the sky" that would add to the deficit.
The burden of Mr. Dole's message is that it is time for Republicans to stop casting protest votes for either of the two nonpoliticians in the field.
"This is serious business," he says at each stop. "We are fighting for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.
L "We need someone who will bring us together, not divide us."
The New England primaries represent a rich prize -- 107 delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine and Vermont. All except the 15 in Maine will be awarded on a winner-take-all basis.
Mr. Dole seems virtually assured of winning in Rhode Island because only he and Mr. Alexander qualified for the ballot and because he has the support of the entire party establishment, from Gov. Lincoln C. Almond, Sen. John H. Chafee and state party chairman John Holmes down to the level of several dozen party functionaries and town officials.
The Senate leader also is leading in polls in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where he has similar support from the Republican leadership, although politicians in both states are warning that it is difficult to gauge the likely turnout in states that have received so little attention from the candidates.
In addition to his television buy, Mr. Alexander scheduled his own fly-around of Portland, Maine; Burlington, Vt.; Hartford and Boston on Monday.
And Mr. Dole planned to touch down today in both Maine and Vermont before flying on to Long Island to press his case in the New York primary that suddenly has become a horse race between him and Mr. Forbes.
Both Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Forbes also are expected in New England for brief appearances over the weekend.
And a fifth Republican, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, is spending several days concentrating on Maine and Vermont in an attempt to score an attention-getting upset.
The crowded primary schedule has left none of the candidates with either the money or organizational resources to compete on the level at which they operated in Iowa and New Hampshire just two weeks ago.
"I don't think any of us calibrated the toughness of the calendar," Mr. Rath said.