WASHINGTON -- The first law of politics is never say never, but it is almost impossible to conjure up the circumstances under which Bob Dole could be denied the Republican presidential nomination after his sweep of eight primaries.
After a year of marching up the hill and down again, the Senate majority leader finally has fulfilled the expectations of party leaders who considered his nomination inevitable, then began to worry as he stumbled through the early stages of the campaign.
But Mr. Dole seized the front-runner's role again without presenting a new and compelling message for his candidacy. On the contrary, he is still campaigning on his resume and the argument that his experience is what his party needs.
The difference, the exit polls indicated, is that more and more voters found something lacking in his challengers.
Television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan's negatives rose sharply as voters saw television pictures of angry protesters accusing him of racism and anti-Semitism. Magazine publisher Steve Forbes lost steam when voters began to weigh his lack of conventional credentials for the White House.
And the little support former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee had managed to demonstrate in finishing third in Iowa and New Hampshire evaporated as he failed to make a persuasive case for his own candidacy.
The turnabout was remarkably quick. Only a week ago, after Mr. Dole's losses to Mr. Buchanan in New Hampshire and Mr. Forbes in Arizona, highly placed Republicans in Washington were speculating privately about the number of delegates to the convention who would arrive at San Diego without being legally bound and about the lack of an enforcement mechanism in Republican convention rules if delegates chose to support a candidate who had not come through the primaries.
There was talk among insiders about whether the party could turn to retired Gen. Colin L. Powell after all or, alternatively, whether Mr. Dole might need to assure his nomination by designating the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in advance as his choice for vice president.
But last night those same Republicans were agreeing with Gov. Jim Edgar of Illinois, who told the Associated Press, "If he doesn't have it wrapped up, he's close."
With those eight states in his delegate pouch, Mr. Dole seems to face risks that would be viewed as far-fetched in any other year.
One is the possibility he might be upset in the New York primary tomorrow by Mr. Forbes. Another is that Mr. Buchanan's protectionist message on trade might resonate in the so-called Rust Belt primaries March 19, particularly in Michigan and Ohio. And the third is that Mr. Dole would be so unengaging as a front-runner again that he might lose the winner-take-all California primary March 26.
But a far more logical case could be made that Mr. Dole will have accumulated the necessary 996 delegates by sometime in April, perhaps in the April 23 Pennsylvania primary.
From the outset Mr. Dole profited from the miscalculations and decisions of others in the party and political community.
He became the unchallenged early leader when such potentially strong rivals as former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, former Vice President Dan Quayle, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and, most importantly, Mr. Powell decided not to compete for the nomination.
Then Mr. Dole found his position reinforced by the failures of those who were seen originally as his most serious challengers.
Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who essentially set the agenda for the whole of 1995, encountered buyer resistance that doomed his campaign even before New Hampshire.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana found the high esteem in which he is held in Washington counted for nothing in a primary campaign. And Mr. Alexander, after showing a ripple of strength in Iowa and New Hampshire, discovered his message that he was the only candidate who could beat President Clinton in November simply wasn't marketable.
But Mr. Dole continued to appear vulnerable -- first to the unprecedented personal spending of Mr. Forbes and second to the zeal evoked by Mr. Buchanan among the most culturally conservative and economically endangered Republicans.
Throughout the first two months of the year, moreover, Mr. Dole appeared to be a halting, uncertain candidate unable to offer a coherent picture of where he would take the country as #i president.
When he finally agreed to join a debate in New Hampshire, his own tracking polls showed he lost 9 percentage points in his favorability ratings in a single night -- an experience that prompted him to refuse to appear in an Arizona debate.
But tenacity is an often undervalued asset in politics, and Mr. Dole kept on keeping on while the support for both Mr. Forbes and Mr. Buchanan seemed to reach their ceilings.
That perseverance, coupled with the across-the-spectrum support he enjoyed from Republican leaders appalled by the two outsiders, finally paid dividends in South Carolina and again in those eight primaries yesterday.
Mr. Dole may not have achieved what horse players call "a mortal lock" on the Republican nomination but he is clearly an odds-on favorite.
Pub Date: 3/06/96