COLUMBIA, S.C. -- This time, when he emerged to speak to his supporters at the end of a presidential contest day, no one had to remind Bob Dole to smile.
Getting from the South's first primary what has eluded him in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination -- a decisive victory -- a beaming Mr. Dole, who lost here in 1988, said, "I've waited eight years to say, 'Thank you, South Carolina.' I'll never forget what happened in South Carolina tonight.' "
With his wife, Elizabeth, and the state's GOP power brokers by his side, the Kansas senator said that "nobody in their wildest dreams" thought he would beat rival GOP candidate Patrick J. Buchanan by as much as 15 percentage points.
"This is a big one -- but we still have a tough road ahead," he said to a surprisingly small crowd that filled only about a quarter of a state fairgrounds building here.
"I'd like to wind it up by the end of March if possible."
Mr. Dole said Republicans need to keep their focus on "the real game -- that's in November."
"If we do that," he said, "we will have success."
The senator's victory here gives him a boost into Tuesday's cluster of primaries -- in neighboring Georgia, Maryland and five New England states -- that he hopes will give him enough momentum to make him unstoppable.
"This is really the launching pad," said Robert E. Lighthizer, a senior aide with the Dole campaign.
"After this, it's inevitable."
Noting that Ronald Reagan won the South Carolina primary in 1980 and that George Bush won in 1988 -- both of whom went on to nab the GOP nomination -- Charles Dunn, a professor of political science at South Carolina's Clemson University, said, "If history is the best predictor -- and it usually is -- this seals the deal for Bob Dole."
"It's a turning point," said lawyer Bill Sherman, one of about 50 supporters from Washington, D.C., who drove down for last night's victory party.
Mr. Dunn said Mr. Dole appeared less "cloaked and veiled and scripted" in his campaign appearances in South Carolina, and thus won over voters here by "speaking from the heart" about his humble beginnings and his crippling war injury.
"That plays very well here. This is a strong, patriotic state," he said.
But he and others also gave credit for Mr. Dole's victory to the backing of the state's GOP leadership, namely Gov. David Beasley, a champion of the large bloc of religious conservatives in the state, and former Gov. Carroll Campbell.
"The culture here is much more of a follow-the-leader culture," Mr. Dunn said, explaining why this state's power brokers succeeded where New Hampshire Gov. Stephen Merrill, who also backed Mr. Dole, failed.
"There is much more deference of followers to leaders."
One supporter here, law student Drew Carroll, said he was undecided until he saw Mr. Campbell endorsing Mr. Dole on CNN's "Crossfire."
"Campbell carries a lot of weight here and always will," the University of South Carolina student said.
So popular is the former governor that state Attorney General Charles Condon, state chairman for Mr. Dole, tried to start a chant of "Dole, Campbell '96" last night.
Mr. Lighthizer attributed Mr. Dole's large win to the absence of a "carpet-bombing" of negative ads by other candidates and to the candidate's improvement.
"He's getting better. The staff's getting better. And we didn't have a poison atmosphere," he said.
One supporter at last night's party, investment banker Jeff Palen of Columbia, said he thought Mr. Buchanan's support for trade barriers hadn't resonated in South Carolina -- where foreign companies have provided thousands of new jobs as textile plants have closed -- as much as it had in such states as New Hampshire.
Mr. Dunn said last night's Dole victory sent an important signal to Mr. Buchanan.
With publishing magnate Steve Forbes and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander waging minimal campaigns, the primary shaped up as a one-on-one contest between Mr. Dole and Mr. Buchanan, the professor said.
"This signals that whenever you have Dole head to head with Buchanan, Dole wins," Mr. Dunn said.
"Buchanan was hitting his head on his very low ceiling."
And Mr. Dole was hitting the heights, for the first time this campaign season.
"Let me say," he told the crowd, "it's a lot more fun winning."