COLUMBIA, S.C., FEB. 17 -- In what could be a dangerous gamble, the presidential campaign of Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) does not plan to seriously challenge Vice President Bush or former television evangelist Pat Robertson in South Carolina, a key southern state that will hold its primary on March 5, three days before 20 other states select delegates on "Super Tuesday."

On the other hand, Robertson declared today that the outcome here, a bastion of conservative, evangelical political activity, will make or break his campaign.

"It's not a 'must-win' state at all for us. It's not a major state for us, as it is for Bush and for Robertson," said Rod Shealy, Dole's South Carolina director. "We have not purchased one television or radio ad; there is no direct mail, no phone banks," he said.

Because of its timing, South Carolina is expected to play a key role setting the tenor of the Super Tuesday contest March 8, a day on which 14 of the 20 presidential caucuses or primaries will be in southern states.

"There is no sense in playing games," Robertson said in an appearance at the Greenville airport. "If I lose this one, I'm in trouble."

Earlier this week, Robertson said, "I am throwing down the gauntlet" in South Carolina. "I played in Bob Dole's backyard in Iowa, I played in George Bush's backyard in New Hampshire. They will be playing in my backyard in South Carolina."

As the returns from New Hampshire rolled in, however, workers put on bright faces at his state headquarters but were clearly depressed by Robertson's fifth-place finish in the Republican primary.

"That's okay, we'll get him {Bush} when he comes down South," said Adrian Maclean, a convention planner. "Wait till we get the candidates down in grits county," said Fred Kerr, a missionary who works with foreign students at the University of South Carolina. "Pat's the only southern conservative running."

The Bush campaign -- which has the overwhelming support of the GOP establishment, from Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. (R) on down -- appeared to symbolically pick up the gauntlet laid down by Robertson, holding what turned into a victory party at the house of William B. (Rusty) Depass.

Depass last year provoked anger in the Robertson camp when he said a Robertson meeting was "like a Nazi pep rally" at which those in attendance were "whipped into a froth. It was a mob mentality."

With a smile of victory, the vice president's son, George Jr., told the crowd at the Depass house: "Now the burden shifts to South Carolina . . . . Pat Robertson has laid the gauntlet down. This is where he said he is going to whip George Bush."

Norman (Skip) Watts, Dole's national political director, said, "We are not going to write them {the South Carolina campaign} off; we are not going to let them float off alone." He added, however, that "Super Tuesday is far broader than the South," noting that a large number of delegates will be selected that day from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and other states above the Mason-Dixon line.

Watts argued that the Bush campaign's "gateway theme" to describe the importance of South Carolina "is inaccurate . . . . The Bush people have made it their gateway. If they lose South Carolina to Robertson or a combination of candidates, they have made a big mistake. It's their gateway, not our gateway."

He said, however, that the Dole campaign could change its mind at any time.