WASHINGTON -- President Bush enters the 1992 presidential election year still an odds-on favorite for re-election in November. Some factors that appear to be little more than nuisances now, however, could develop into troublesome impediments down the road.
The challenges to him for the Republican nomination from newspaper columnist and television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan and from Louisiana state legislator and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke do not loom as formidable yet. But circumstances created by both candidacies can work to make the incumbent president more vulnerable to the eventual Democratic nominee in the fall.
Mr. Buchanan, in taking Mr. Bush on in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary on Feb. 18, intends to exploit the same theme that the Democrats are already trumpeting -- that this president in focusing on foreign policy gamesmanship neglects a disintegrating economy at home. New Hampshire provides an ideal setting for making the argument, with a stubborn recession that has hit the state particularly hard.
And because New Hampshire Republicans put Mr. Bush on the road to the White House in their 1988 primary by choosing him over Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, to whom Mr. Bush had finished third in the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Buchanan has been able to cast the president as a political ingrate. He declared in a recent speech in Bedford, N.H., that it was "payback time" for New Hampshire to get special help from Mr. Bush in climbing out of the recession.
Mr. Bush's decision to hold off a campaign trip to New Hampshire until later in January, upon his return from his Asian tour, has also given Mr. Buchanan an opening to charge that the president is putting his interests in foreign affairs above the needs of Americans at home -- and especially in New Hampshire.
To hold the fort, Vice President Dan Quayle is going to the Granite State on Wednesday and Thursday, but that won't stop Mr. Buchanan from continuing to tell New Hampshirites that Mr. Bush doesn't care enough about their concerns. Two earlier presidents -- Harry S. Truman in 1952 and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 -- failed to campaign in the New Hampshire primary, and poor showings by each led to a decision shortly afterward not to seek re-election.
That prospect seems to exist only in Mr. Buchanan's mind right now, but there is that precedent. Mr. Buchanan has said candidly that he doesn't believe he can beat Mr. Bush in a drawn-out fight for convention delegates, noting that Ronald Reagan failed to do so against incumbent Gerald R. Ford in 1976.
But Mr. Buchanan argues that a shocker of the dimensions of Democratic Sen. Estes Kefauver's New Hampshire victory over Truman in 1952 or Democratic Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy's near-miss against LBJ in 1968 -- he won 42 percent against 49 percent for Johnson's write-in candidacy -- could make Mr. Bush begin to think that his future was past.
If Mr. Buchanan runs close enough to Mr. Bush in New Hampshire to claim some sort of moral victory and to attract the kind of campaign contributions he will need to press on, the former Nixon and Reagan speech writer and aide can continue to be a nag on the right, giving conservative Republicans unhappy with Mr. Bush a mouthpiece for their disenchantment. Such pressure in turn could oblige Mr. Bush to sound ever more conservative himself, to his possible peril against the eventual Democratic nominee.
But if Mr. Buchanan turns out to be a political Roman candle in New Hampshire, quickly flaming out, Mr. Bush should be over the hump toward renomination. The challenge from Mr. Duke, which will focus on selected Southern states, can serve to make Mr. Bush seem more moderate -- while still being a major embarrassment to the whole Republican Party. Republican leaders in several states have moved to keep Mr. Duke off their primary lists.
Mr. Buchanan, for one, argues that it is a mistake to bar Mr. Duke from the Republican primary ballot in contested states and says that he relishes the chance to take him on and establish "who is the real conservative and who is the impostor." He says that Mr. Duke is drawing his strategy and best cheer lines from the Buchanan political playbook.
This claim is a two-edged sword for Mr. Buchanan, himself criticized by such conservative stalwarts as William F. Buckley as the author of anti-Semitic statements and views, accusations that Mr. Buchanan strenuously denies while aggressively criticizing U.S. aid to and support of Israel. Mr. Duke's anti-Semitic as well as racist rantings have been blatant compared to Mr. Buchanan's remarks, but the best thing that could happen for Mr. Bush's renomination would be a Buchanan-Duke sideshow that would leave the president standing as the reasonable, responsible Republican.