WASHINGTON -- Gone are the forced smiles, the pained looks. Last night, Bob Dole suddenly seemed on the verge of capturing a prize he has chased through three campaigns over two decades.
With his sweep of all eight states holding Republican primaries, the Senate majority leader overcame a rocky start in a race that scarcely a week ago was threatening to crush his presidential dreams once again.
Although technically the nomination fight is far from over, Mr. Dole reached the sweet moment last night when he recognized that a sweep of the eight primaries -- and the momentum to follow through the remaining contests -- would be his.
"All my life in politics, I've been trying to bring people together," he told about 200 screaming supporters last night at a victory rally here. "I'll do the same as the next president of the United States."
Earlier in the day, as exit polls showed Mr. Dole piling up commanding leads in states as diverse as Georgia, Colorado and Massachusetts, he was characteristically understated in his assessments.
"My view is that if you win all eight, and win New York on Thursday," where he is also favored, "we'll be on our way to success."
When asked to name his leading rival, Mr. Dole quickly snapped: "Clinton," making clear that his sights are already focused on the Democratic president. In fact, some supporters suggested that the main threat to Mr. Dole now could come from overconfidence.
"Dole victories depend on high voter turnout," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a leading adviser. "We can't relax until we get to 996, the number of delegates needed to win the nomination. But this is a very good feeling."
Mr. Dole, 72, is the oldest man to become a major contender for the presidency and, if successful, would likely be the last of his generation to seek the White House.
His campaign theme calls for a return to "adult leadership," and his videos invoke the stirring imagery of Mr. Dole overcoming battle injuries from World War II.
A member of Congress for 33 years -- including six terms in the Senate -- Mr. Dole has been in the presidential arena since 1976, when he was introduced to America as the sharp-tongued running mate of President Gerald R. Ford.
That race led to his first bid for the White House in his own right in 1980, when he out in early primaries to Ronald Reagan, who settled into the presidency for eight years.
In 1988, Mr. Dole tried again, only to see his dreams dashed in primaries by Vice President George Bush.
The Senate majority leader had been considered the front-runner in this year's contest when jockeying began nearly two years ago.
His luck began to sour in January, when critics said Mr. Dole appeared old and grumpy in his televised response to Mr. Clinton's widely praised State of the Union address. Mr. Dole was also attacked by his Republican rivals as a consummate Washington insider.
With Mr. Dole's loss to Patrick J. Buchanan in the New Hampshire primary, followed by his loss to Steve Forbes in Arizona, some critics began counting him out. A shake-up of the Dole campaign staff sounded like a death rattle.
But the Dole campaign has revived in the past few days, beginning with his success in the South Carolina primary.
The turnabout comes as no surprise to Mr. Dole's many supporters in the Senate, who are campaigning vigorously for him in their home states.
Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, chairman of Mr. Dole's campaign in New York, predicts an easy victory there.
Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma said last week that he was confident that the Arizona defeat would be Mr. Dole's "worst night" of the primary season and that his fortunes would steadily rise from there.
"I never doubted it would turn out this way," said Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who said he expects the senator to easily win the March 26 primary in Mr. Cunningham's home state of California.
"These things are never over, but I think he's going to do very well from here on out."
Pub Date: 3/06/96