PHIL GRAMM's withdrawal from the presidential race gives TV commentator Pat Buchanan a virtual lock on the votes of social conservatives and leaves three other Republicans -- Bob Dole, Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes -- battling it out for the allegiance of economic conservatives.
This is not a pleasant prospect for the party mainstream, which fears Mr. Buchanan could wreck GOP chances in 1996 as he did in 1992.
It is not just that Mr. Buchanan's all-out anti-abortion stance runs counter to the wishes of many Americans. His protectionist position on trade and his populist attacks on corporate America contradict long-standing Republican support for a free market economy.
In pulling out yesterday after his fifth-place showing in Iowa, Senator Gramm did not endorse any of the four remaining contenders. But in discussing protectionism, he said, "I reject it now and I always will reject it." The Austin American-Statesman newspaper has speculated he will quickly come out in support of Senator Dole.
Whether this will be enough to bring about a must-win victory for the front-running Kansan in next Tuesday's New Hampshire primary is a matter of conjecture.
Only 15 months ago, under the banner of the "Contract with America," Republicans captured control of Congress on a platform that was relatively silent on the Christian Right issues that propel the Buchanan campaign but strong on tax cuts, a balanced budget and a smaller, less intrusive government. Now this message has been scrambled by Mr. Buchanan.
Former Tennessee Gov. Alexander, a solid third-place finisher in Iowa, is clearly eager to continue his quest for the presidency. Publisher Steve Forbes, a poor fourth, is just as clearly in a wobble.
Which leaves Mr. Dole. He said, perhaps to his lasting regret, that whoever wins New Hampshire "probably will be the Republican nominee." Like himself. But if Mr. Buchanan triumphs, where will that leave the economic conservatives? It may leave them hoping for a deadlock in the primaries that would allow the Republican National Convention to turn to someone else -- perhaps Gov. John Engler of Michigan or Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin. Their key is to stop Mr. Buchanan.