WASHINGTON -- With surprising suddenness, Sen. Bob Dole removed almost all suspense from the Republican presidential contest last night, sweeping to lopsided primary victories in Maryland and seven other states.
His string of commanding victories puts him well within reach of the prize he has pursued for the better part of two decades: the GOP nomination.
With Mr. Dole having amassed more than a quarter of the delegates he needs, Republican analysts said the real question no longer is whether the Senate majority leader will lock it up, but when.
Just a week ago, Mr. Dole seemed to be a wounded candidate whose lackluster appearances and losses in primaries in New Hampshire, Delaware and Arizona made him appear vulnerable to the outsider campaigns of Patrick J. Buchanan and Steve Forbes.
Yesterday, doing better than expected in almost every state, Mr. Dole crushed Mr. Buchanan, his main rival, often by staggering margins.
In Maryland, Mr. Dole defeated him almost 3-1.
"I know they call this 'Junior Tuesday,' but it seems pretty super to us," a jubilant Mr. Dole told supporters last night, three days after the victory in the South Carolina primary that got his candidacy back on track.
Unlike in his previous election-night speeches, Mr. Dole never mentioned the primary battle with his Republican opponents.
Instead, he looked ahead to the goal of unifying the party and the election in the fall.
"Tonight, we've proven the pundits wrong. The Republican Party is not splitting apart. It's coming together," he told a rally at a hotel near Capitol Hill.
"Pretty soon, we're going to unite to achieve one purpose: That's to defeat Bill Clinton in November 1996."
Mr. Lugar lost his bid in the Vermont primary -- he was fourth, with 14 percent -- and planned to announce he was leaving the race today. Mr. Alexander, who ran a weak third yesterday in neighboring Georgia, abruptly pulled off the campaign trail in Florida and scheduled a similar news conference in Nashville today.
Their withdrawal will make it easier for Mr. Dole to solidify his support among moderate Republicans.
But he still must pile up the 996 delegates needed to win, a process that will take at least several weeks, and perhaps longer.
As of last night, he had 276.
Mr. Dole won three states yesterday with more than 50 percent of the vote -- Maryland, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
The closest finish was in Georgia, a state Mr. Buchanan had called must-win for him.
The former TV commentator drew a larger share of the vote there than he has in other primaries, but Mr. Dole still defeated him easily, by at least 10 percentage points, based on nearly complete returns.
Steve Forbes was not a factor anywhere, including Connecticut, where he focused his campaign efforts.
Mr. Dole beat him by better than 2-to-1 there.
Both Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Forbes intend to keep their challenges alive, with tomorrow's primary in New York the next test.
Mr. Forbes has said he'd stay in the race at least through the California primary on March 26.
Mr. Buchanan declared again last night that he'd continue all the way to the national convention in San Diego in August.
Only about a quarter of the GOP delegates have been picked thus far.
But the frenzied pace of the contest -- most of the delegates will be chosen before the end of this month -- gives Mr. Dole a prohibitive edge over his remaining rivals, analysts said.
"The way the primary calendar works, defeating Dole now is impossible," said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who worked for Mr. Buchanan in 1992.
"It works very much in favor of Dole because the other candidates don't have the opportunity to concentrate their efforts in one state."
The main task for Mr. Dole now, he added, is to unify the party "by reaching out to the Buchanan voters in some way."
"Dole is well on his way to being the nominee," said Paul Wilson, a Republican political consultant who has developed a computer model of the delegate process.
Even before yesterday's sweep, Mr. Dole was favored to win next Tuesday's primaries in Texas, Florida and five other states.
"That would pretty much put the nomination out of reach for anybody else," said Mr. Wilson, who estimates that it would be early April, at least, before the Kansas senator formally goes over the 996-delegate mark.
If the GOP race is essentially being decided by the middle of March, as many Republicans had originally thought, Mr. Dole has had to fight much harder to win it than generally had been expected.
He also had to spend much more in the early contests, especially Iowa and New Hampshire, to fend off Mr. Forbes' self-financed candidacy.
As a result, the Dole campaign's biggest problem now is money.
Mr. Dole will hit the $37 million nationwide spending limit within the next few weeks, a fact he alluded to in his victory speech last night.
Apologizing to supporters for being late to his own party, he said he had been conducting satellite TV interviews with stations around the country "trying to get some free media, because we're a little low on cash."
Today Mr. Dole heads to Texas, scene of next Tuesday's biggest primary, where he is expected to receive the endorsement of Gov. George W. Bush in Austin. Later, he'll head to Florida, next week's other big delegate prize.
The senator has no plans to return to New York, which holds its primary tomorrow. Mr. Forbes is far outspending him there -- the publisher is putting between $1 million and $3 million into a last-minute ad blitz.
But Mr. Dole predicted last night that he would win 90 percent of the state's 102 delegates.
Mr. Buchanan, who is on the New York ballot in 21 of 31 congressional districts, has no plans to quit. As he did four years ago, when he challenged President George Bush, he expects to carry his candidacy through the end of the primary season in June.
"A lot of things can happen between now and then," Mr. Buchanan said last night in Buffalo, N.Y., where he was campaigning for votes in tomorrow's New York primary. But, he conceded, "It's an uphill battle everywhere."
As Mr. Buchanan's nomination chances have all but disappeared over the past week, he's been intensifying his threat to force a convention fight, if necessary, to keep a strong anti-abortion plank in the party platform.
How much leverage Mr. Buchanan has at the convention will depend in part on how well he does in the remaining primaries. Mr. Dole said as much this week, noting that "if [Mr. Buchanan] gets 300 or 400 [delegates], that'll make a difference."
As of last night, he had 51.
Interviews conducted with voters as they left their polling places in yesterday's primaries indicated that most Republicans would like to see the party soften its anti-abortion stance.
Even in Georgia, the most conservative of the eight primary states, a majority of Republican voters said they opposed an absolute abortion ban in the party platform.
Only about one-third of Republicans participating in yesterday's primaries said they wanted the platform to include a constitutional amendment banning abortion, the exit poll found.
As he did three days earlier in winning a pivotal South Carolina victory, Mr. Dole again broke Mr. Buchanan's grip on the support of religious conservatives, earning almost an even split among those voters.
The exit poll also hinted at the way Mr. Dole is likely to benefit from the withdrawal of Mr. Alexander and Mr. Lugar.
When voters were asked whom they would choose, if Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Dole were the only candidates, two-thirds of Republicans in the primaries picked Mr. Dole.
Pub Date: 3/06/96