THE fog that enveloped New England the morning after the New Hampshire primary seemed an appropriate illustration of the results of Tuesday's balloting.
Much is made of the fact that Pat Buchanan ''won'' - and he deserves credit for his achievement. But 27 percent of the vote is not the heart and soul of the Republican Party. And since New Hampshire is not a winner-takes-all state, he walks away with only six of 16 delegates.
Still, Mr. Buchanan taps a deep well of discontent and anxiety over the economy. He exploits a serious divide between portions of the country's grass roots and its political, economic, and cultural leadership. He understands how to use the media. While the states where he has come in first so far have idiosyncrasies that seem tailor-made for him, it would be foolish to underestimate his potential to perform strongly in the next few weeks.
Buchanan has a strong platform. But his strength may also be his weakness. Most conservatives do not endorse his populist economic proposals, and many Republicans have noted that his economic isolationism and protectionism often sound as if he is reading from an AFL-CIO script. Buchanan is correct when he says the GOP establishment will pull out all the stops to defeat him. In the end, the mainstream will probably win out.
Bob Dole's hope was to emerge from New Hampshire as the real front-runner after being the putative leader for a year. He got his worst-case scenario instead. Where he hoped to deliver a knockout punch and have the field to himself, he now has two tough opponents who may be able to stay with him throughout the primary season.
Senator Dole is every bit as scrappy a fighter as Buchanan. He retains a powerful organization and ample campaign funds. But in order to win the nomination (and do so with enough political and financial strength to make the general election a contest), he'll need to charge up a lackluster effort and convince people that he has the vision to lead the country. Merely campaigning on his experience and readiness to be president won't cut it.
Lamar Alexander won the expectations race. After languishing in single digits for a year, he finally caught fire when New Hampshirites started paying attention to the campaign. He benefitted from a telegenic, nice-guy image. He is a consummate one-on-one, retail-politicker.
But time will tell whether he is the GOP equivalent of a Jimmy Carter, who rises from obscurity, gains momentum, and sweeps away all opposition, or a Paul Tsongas, who starts out with a few significant victories, then peters out for lack of financing and organization.
Republicans who are concerned about Dole's ability to go mano a mano with President Clinton see in Alexander a candidate who can beat the incumbent at his own campaign game - on television and in town meetings. But while Alexander claims to have ''fresh conservative ideas,'' he will have to pass the where's-the-beef test and do a better job of communicating to voters just what those ideas are.
Steve Forbes and Richard Lugar vow to stay in the race. Both have an uphill struggle.
Two scenarios look probable: (1) Either Dole or Alexander collapses over the next few weeks and the other goes on to beat Buchanan and win the nomination; or (2) All three hang on and no one emerges with a majority of delegates, resulting in a brokered convention. The first is more likely; the second could create an opening for Senator Lugar as a compromise choice. Or a draft for Colin Powell.