MANCHESTER, N.H. -- An angered Sen. Robert Dole may think campaign pacifism by his managers snatched defeat from the jaws of victory here, but in fact he failed because he did not fill the conservative void.
Had Dole done so, he would be traveling a clear highway to the Republican nomination. Instead, he faces George Bush in the Super Tuesday primaries as an underdog with his message and his strategy no clearer than they have been any time the past two years.
But in his comeback here, Bush hardly pinned down the right. With one, two or even three additional conservative candidates still in the race, the vice president's organizational and financial muscle no more guarantees victory in the South March 8 than it did here. The continuing conservative void, besides bringing uncertainty, threatens ultimate defeat for the GOP.
Superficially, Bush's campaign-saving victory here was a triumph of organization and tactics. On Friday morning just four days before the polls opened, the vice president was a loser. It was then that campaign manager Lee Atwater and media consultant Roger Ailes decided on a negative commercial branding Dole as a straddler and a taxer.
While Bush spread-eagled Boston television, Dole was silent. He had no time to prepare commercials, even to say that all of Dole's tax-increasing bills had been supported as administration measures by the vice president. A justifiably uneasy Dole followed advice not to reinforce his reputation for meanness by responding to Bush's attacks.
But tactical efficiency will not cure Dole's problem. The failure to send the voters of New Hampshire a message that would confirm his triumph reflected his inability to sound a coherent message over the past year. Symbolic was Dole's inability in the last debate here to respond to Pierre du Pont's challenge that he take the no-tax-hike pledge.
The result on Tuesday was that here, as in Iowa, Dole captured the most liberal, anti-Reagan precincts even after consciously wooing the Reaganite vote. His base was the upscale, exurban areas near the Massachusetts state line that had voted for George Bush and Howard Baker in 1980. Had Dole expanded be-yond this base into conservative back-woods Republicans, he would today be hailed as the prospective nominee.
Nor did Bush capture enough of the conservatives to transform a heroic comeback into a historic landslide. In the same debate in which Dole could not take the antitax pledge, Bush -- to the anguish of his staff -- mouthed the old anti-Vietnam slogan, ''Give peace a chance,'' and was rebuked by Rep. Jack Kemp.
Kemp carried the hard-core rural right-wing vote, but could not parlay it into a threat to the leaders by combining it with Manchester's blue-collar conservatives. They were captured by du Pont's endorsement from the Manchester Union Leader.
The most spectacular failure to fill the conservative void was Pat Robertson's. The momentum from his organizational efficiency in Iowa proved illusory. Here as elsewhere, he could not break into nonevangelical conservatives or even monopolize the evangelicals.
On the contrary, New Hampshire proved a long step backward for Robertson on the road to political respectability. Beside confusing what his staff had been told about missiles in Cuba and turning it into a self-damaging false alarm, he was giving interviews here suggesting that Social Security is a violation of the Fifth Commandment.
Robertson's southern strategy in South Carolina March 5 and Super Tuesday three days later is to bring disaffected Democrats into the Republican primary and swamp the tiny base of the party's southern regulars loyal to Bush. But he has yet to demonstrate broad appeal. As for Kemp's conservative positions, they are mostly unassailable, but he has not yet mobilized the right -- anywhere -- as time and money run out. Nor has Dole's insistence that the budget deficit is his issue to stir up conservatives proved valid.
If the conservative void stays unfilled, George Bush may limp through the nomination process all the way to New Orleans with victories built, much as New Hampshire's was, on tactics and organization. Whether he then would be prepared for the general election is another matter.