Vice President Bush's campaign Friday unveiled its southern "fire wall" -- a phalanx of three dozen top elected officials and strategists from across the South whose essential function is to protect the Bush candidacy in the event of early defeats in Iowa, New Hampshire and other pre-Super Tuesday states. The South, said Lee Atwater, Bush's campaign manager, "will stop the blood."

Underlying Bush's muscle-flexing here -- which included pep talks by Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, former Texas senator John Tower, South Carolina Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. and Oklahoma Gov. Henry Bellmon -- is the concern that Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) may do to Bush what Bush nearly did to Ronald Reagan in 1980. That year, Bush defeated Reagan in Iowa and his status in national polls shot up from single-digit numbers to near parity with Reagan.

Bush opponents, including Dole, Pat Robertson and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), contend that Bush's large lead in southern polls will evaporate with early defeats in northern states.

Bush supporters meeting in Columbia, S.C., sought to dismiss that possibility. "It's not going to stay a 30-point lead," said Robert Teeter, Bush's pollster, "but the fire wall in the South is wide enough that you can burn off one foot and still have three feet left."

"Iowa and New Hampshire are like foreign countries to us," said Clarke Reed, former chairman of the Mississippi GOP and one of the Bush supporters at the meeting.

Atwater, describing the Bush campaign's preparations, said "I've seen situations where campaigns didn't brace for a loss. . . . We can take a loss anywhere."