WASHINGTON -- He wanted to be sure -- beyond a glimmer of a doubt -- before he laid claim to the prize that has slipped from his grasp twice before. And last night, with California's enormous chunk of delegates snug in his pocket, the ever-cautious Bob Dole was finally sure.
"I'm so confident I'm going to declare right now that I am the Republican nominee," the Senate majority leader announced at a victory party before the polls closed on the West Coast.
"The battle for the Republican nomination is over and the battle for America's future is beginning tonight."
Mr. Dole's victories in the three states that held primaries yesterday -- California, Nevada and Washington -- gave him 1,182 delegates, far more than the 996 needed to win the presidential nomination at the Republican national convention this August in San Diego.
His only serious challenger still in the race, Patrick J. Buchanan, conceded the nomination last night to Mr. Dole -- albeit somewhat grudgingly -- at a rally in Costa Mesa, Calif., but vowed to press on to the convention with his populist conservative agenda.
"We have to concede a certain reality tonight," Mr. Buchanan told his supporters. "Senator Dole is going to go over the top in terms of his delegate count. He will be the Republican nominee, and we have to congratulate him on his victory. We have to make that statement, and we have to respect the decision of the party. "
At stake in California's winner-take-all primary were 165 delegates, by far the largest bloc of delegates. Early returns suggested that Mr. Dole could win there with a larger percentage of the vote than in any of his previous primary victories.
By most calculations, Mr. Dole had clinched the nomination a week ago, when he swept four Midwest primaries. But he had held off claiming victory until he won last night's California primary, trying to make the most populous state appear pivotal to his nomination and thus gain momentum there for the general election.
At his "Over the Top" victory party at a packed hotel ballroom here, the 72-year-old senator, flanked by his wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, Robin, said there were "clear differences between Bob Dole on the one hand and Bill Clinton on the other."
"We're one election away from restoring America's leadership role in the world," said Mr. Dole, who has been portraying himself as a leader of more maturity and stature than Mr. Clinton. "We've lost a lot of prestige in the past three years. Bob Dole's going to restore that prestige for America."
Although there are still primaries stretching throughout the spring, last night's vote effectively ended the Republicans' short but highly contentious primary season in which Mr. Dole rose, within a few weeks, from a weak, stumbling contender to a landslide victor.
Yesterday's results also paved the way for Mr. Dole's match-up with President Clinton -- and a possible third-party candidate, like Ross Perot, who could create big problems for the Republicans in November because of the likelihood that he would drain away votes from Mr. Dole.
Mr. Buchanan could also represent a threat to the nominee. The former TV commentator plans tomorrow to return to his home and headquarters in McLean, Va., and discuss with his advisers the possibility of mounting a third-party bid.
Although he seemed to be leaning against a third-party candidacy, Mr. Buchanan said in a TV interview yesterday that there were a lot of "ifs" built into any decision by him to back the Republican nominee.
"We have to be respected there at San Diego," he said. "Our views have to be heard, and I think the Republican Party has to decide which way it's going."
In his speech last night, Mr. Dole seemed to reach out to Mr. Buchanan and urge him to get behind a Dole candidacy rather than bolt the party. The senator said his primary opponents brought "passion and energy and ideas" to the party and made it stronger.
"The issues they have raised and the voters they have appealed to will be a crucial part of a winning Republican coalition this fall," he said. "We need to win in November. That's what it's all about."
Mr. Dole spent three days in California last weekend as a "curtain-raiser" to his general election race.
With its 54 electoral votes -- one-fifth of the 270 votes needed to win the November election -- California is considered essential to Mr. Clinton's re-election. The latest polls show the president leading Mr. Dole there by up to 20 percentage points.
Unlike George Bush, who angered California Republicans by failing to campaign there in 1992 and in effect ceding the state to Mr. Clinton, Mr. Dole has said he will campaign aggressively there.
Equally determined, Mr. Clinton has visited the state 23 times since being elected president.
In an interview on CNN last night, Mr. Dole said he was considering announcing his choice for, if not a running mate, then a couple of Cabinet positions in advance of the August convention.
He said he had thought of this unorthodox move as a way to zTC maintain interest in his candidacy during the "long dry spell" between now and the convention.
Pub Date: 3/27/96