Manchester, N.H. IN LAUNCHING his long-shot presidential challenge against George Bush here, right-wing news commentator Patrick Buchanan insists he is not simply trying to keep the president honest on conservative issues but is out to win the Republican nomination.
But at the same time he says it is "almost impossible" for a challenger to wrest the nomination from an incumbent president in a drawn-out competition for national convention delegates. "Teddy Roosevelt couldn't do it," he says, "Ronald Reagan couldn't do it," even against "an accidental president (Gerald Ford)."
Therefore, he says, if he is going to be the nominee he will probably have to do in the Republican Party what Sen. Eugene McCarthy did in the Democratic Party in the New Hampshire primary 24 years ago: so embarrass the incumbent that he is persuaded to step aside.
In 1968, while Buchanan was busily engaged as Richard M. Nixon's press secretary in his GOP primary contest against Gov. George Romney of Michigan, McCarthy jolted the country by getting 42 percent of the vote against President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Democratic primary. Shortly afterward the incumbent president told the nation he would not seek $l re-election.
Buchanan declines to say what percentage of the vote he would have to win to similarly chase Bush out of the race, saying that judgment will be made by the news media. But Buchanan as a former journalist and veteran of presidential campaigns knows the expectations game well. When asked whether he will press on beyond New Hampshire if he gets snowed under here by Bush, he ducks. He acknowledges that funds to continue would be hard to come by, but then adds that there are other states (unnamed) where Bush might also be vulnerable.
Buchanan says he's "going to try not to be distracted" from his main goal of "taking back" the Republican Party from Bush, but the other challenge to the president from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke offers him a diversion he may not be able to resist.
Duke has elected to bypass the New Hampshire primary for the potentially more friendly Southern state tests, and Buchanan says "if I do well here . . . I would love to go South and have a real head-to-head with David Duke, and see who is the real conservative and who is the impostor." The remark underscores Buchanan's irritation that Duke, in his view, has stolen some of the same conservative positions he advances.
But for now until the Feb. 18 primary here, New Hampshire will be the ballgame for Buchanan. The state Republican organization, however, headed by Gov. Judd Gregg, is locked up for President Bush. And Gregg says that while some Republican voters here may vote for Buchanan to "send a message" to Bush about their unhappiness over the state's economic stagnation, the president will win the primary handily and carry the state easily in the fall. A primary vote, he says, "is a vote people can cast without it coming back to hurt them in terms of electing a president."
But Tom Rath, a GOP activist in the Bush camp, says "in this state, people don't like to send a message," that is, they take their primary vote seriously. He says Buchanan, while not a threat to Bush's renomination, "is a serious person who demonstrates to the White House that there's unrest out there."
Rath says his concern is that the Buchanan candidacy "could cause the wrong reaction in the White House -- skewing too far to the right and leaving the middle open to the Democrats."
Buchanan can count from 15 to 20 percent of the vote that is rock-ribbed conservative here, he says. With that, Rath says, getting 30 to 35 percent is not out of the question -- a strong shot over Bush's bow. But Buchanan, too, must break out of his ideological base, he says.
Buchanan's sister and campaign chairman, Angela "Bay" Buchanan, says a goal of about $500,000 has been set to enable her brother to match whatever the Bush campaign spends in paid television advertising. As a prominent television celebrity himself, Buchanan is counting on luring local and Boston news cameras to complement his own ads.
But 1992 is not 1968. There is no war on, and the last one -- originally opposed by Buchanan -- turned out to be very popular and a distinct plus for Bush. Buchanan has to count on economic pain in New Hampshire to make him the Gene McCarthy of 1992 -- a very tall order.