COLUMBIA, S.C. -- President Bush hopes to turn the tables on Patrick J. Buchanan and send him a message in the South Carolina Republican primary today.
All political signs point to big victories for Mr. Bush and for Bill Clinton, the Democratic front-runner.
Though not many delegates are at stake -- 43 for the Democrats, 36 for the Republicans -- the South Carolina results could affect the candidates' momentum going into the 11 contests scheduled Tuesday.
They also could narrow the Democratic race: Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin is hoping to revive his fading campaign with a good performance in South Carolina.
But Mr. Bush may stand to gain the most of any candidate if he can knock Mr. Buchanan below 30 percent, the standard by which the challenger's credibility is being measured as a result of previous contests.
"I think this is Bush's best opportunity," said University of South Carolina political scientist Earl Black, citing the organizational support of Gov. Carroll Campbell, co-chairman of the president's national campaign.
"I think the only real question is whether the Campbell organization can turn out the Bush vote. I think a lot of it is soft."
Mr. Campbell's organization is widely respected for its ability to identify primary voters and get them to the polls. This could be decisive because less than 10 percent of the voting-age population is expected to vote.
History and tradition also favor Mr. Bush, who clobbered Republican opponents in the 1988 South Carolina primary.
"There is a sense of loyalty in the South Carolina political culture," explained Blease Graham, a specialist in state politics at the University of South Carolina.
Even though the homebuilding industry is depressed, Mr. Bush was cheered Thursday when he spoke to 1,200 members of the Home Builders Association of Greater Columbia.
Mr. Bush won their hearts with his proposal to give first-time homebuyers a $5,000 tax credit, which he said would generate 3,500 new homes and 6,000 jobs in South Carolina.
He also tried to restore his tarnished image as a man of conviction, saying, "I've learned that life means nothing without fidelity to principles."
Perhaps Mr. Bush had seen the cartoon in that morning's edition of the State, South Carolina's leading newspaper. Titled "Wimp Vane," it depicted the president as a weather vane being spun dizzily by Mr. Buchanan.
The cartoon highlighted an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with Mr. Bush that Mr. Buchanan and David Duke, who is beginning his presidential campaign here, hope to tap.
Mr. Buchanan has made few appearances here but is advertising extensively on TV and radio, which suggests he is concerned about South Carolina and yet does not want to raise expectations.
In one ad, he defines his "America First" campaign theme with attacks on foreign aid and unfair trade practices. He is reaching out to textile workers who feel threatened by foreign imports.
Poll results don't bode well for Mr. Bush's opponents, especially Mr. Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader whose role as a protest candidate has been eclipsed by Mr. Buchanan.
A survey of South Carolina voters by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research of Columbia, Md., showed Mr. Bush leading with 78 percent, Mr. Buchanan second with 15 percent and Mr. Duke last with just 2 percent.
The same poll showed Mr. Clinton, the Arkansas governor, leading former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas 33 percent to 14 percent, followed by Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey with 9 percent, Mr. Harkin with 6 percent, and former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. with 3 percent.
Mr. Kerrey quit the race Thursday.
Mr. Harkin campaigned yesterday in South Carolina and is running some ads. Earlier, he campaigned with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson as part of a pitch aimed at black voters, who make up 30 percent of the electorate. But Mr. Clinton is expected to win most of the black vote.
Mr. Tsongas, who didn't have an organization here a couple of weeks ago, visited Wednesday and has been endorsed by some prominent South Carolinians, such as banker W. W. "Hootie" Johnson, who supported Mr. Bush in 1988.
But Mr. Tsongas, concentrating more on Tuesday's primaries, concedes victory to Mr. Clinton.