Buchanan to challenge Bush in N.H. Conservative pledges to put 'America first'

December 11, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Syndicated columnist Patrick J. Buchanan, acting out a dream of frustrated political pundits everywhere, became a presidential candidate yesterday.

Although he has no realistic chance of winning the Republican nomination, his campaign is a potential nightmare for President Bush, who now faces a double-barreled challenge from the right wing of his own party. Last week, former Klansman David Duke announced that he, too, would enter the GOP primaries.

Mr. Buchanan, a square-jawed, tough-talking conservative, said he was running "to take my party back and to take our country back." He issued a nationalistic call for economic and moral renewal, then harshly criticized Mr. Bush's leadership.

"George Bush . . . is yesterday, and we are tomorrow," he said in an announcement speech carried live over national cable TV. "He would put America's wealth and power at the service of some vague new world order. We will put America first."

Mr. Buchanan spoke from the lobby of a state office building in Concord, N.H. And it is in New Hampshire, the first primary state, that his fantasy will take off or die.

He likens his 10-week campaign for the Feb. 18 primary to a 10-round championship boxing match. But his model is straight out of political history: the protest campaign of Eugene McCarthy. The liberal Democrat's unexpectedly strong showing in the 1968 New Hampshire primary -- he got 42 percent in a losing effort -- revealed the depth of public sentiment against the Vietnam War and prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson not to seek re-election that year.

Mr. Buchanan would like his campaign to have a similar impact, and when an AIDS activist briefly interrupted yesterday's announcement ceremony, the candidate remarked somewhat lightheartedly that his "nostalgia for 1968" was now complete. "The demonstrators are still here," wisecracked the 53-year-old Republican, who is best known as a panelist on TV talk shows such as CNN's "Crossfire" and "The McLaughlin Group."

Four years ago, a primary victory in New Hampshire revived Mr. Bush's faltering drive for the GOP nomination. But with the state's once-booming economy now stuck in a deep freeze, Mr. Bush's popularity has fallen dramatically.

Even before Mr. Buchanan formally entered the race, statewide polls showed him getting between 15 percent and 20 percent of the primary vote against Mr. Bush. But he would need closer to twice that much to embarrass the president severely or inflict major damage on his re-election chances.

Bush campaign strategists are taking Mr. Buchanan's challenge seriously, although they say they regard him as a fringe candidate. The president, on a campaign-style visit yesterday to Illinois, responded to Mr. Buchanan, though not by name, by attacking trade protectionism and warning against the "isolationistic" "siren's call of 'America first.' "

While Mr. Bush was addressing commodity traders in Chicago, Mr. Buchanan was pitching his message to the frustrated working class "of both parties and of no party."

He spoke as dismissively of Mr. Bush and the "ruling class" in the White House as he did of the Democratic majority in Congress. Both, he said, are "ossified and out of touch" with ordinary Americans.

Mr. Bush, he claimed, had betrayed the trust of those who elected him by running up massive deficits and raising taxes in "a seedy back-room deal with the big spenders on Capitol Hill."

"What is the White House answer to the recession that was caused by its own breach of faith? It is to deny there is a recession," he said. "Well, let them come to New Hampshire."

Mr. Buchanan also stressed his opposition to "the welfare state" and racial quotas, two inflammatory issues that Mr. Duke is emphasizing. He accused Mr. Bush of embracing a civil rights bill that was the "twin" of a measure the president had "railed against [as] a quota bill."

Much of his 15-minute speech dealt with foreign policy, considered by many to be Mr. Bush's strongest suit. Mr. Buchanan, an outspokenfoe of U.S. military action against Iraq, called for a radical reshaping of defense and foreign policy and a phaseout of foreign aid.

Mr. Buchanan has never sought elective office before, although he considered a run for president in 1987. He backed away at the last moment because, he said, he was afraid of hurting the chances of fellow conservative Jack F. Kemp.

His candidacy has focused attention on some of his more controversial statements and positions, including his blunt criticism of Israel and his opposition to Nazi-hunting activities by the U.S. government, both of which have led to accusations that he is anti-Jewish.

He has also been labeled a racist because of his outspoken criticism of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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