Buchanan hopes to be more than the protest candidate

February 05, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Patrick J. Buchanan, the angry man of Republican politics, gave a telling laugh.

"We're on the move!" he exulted to an old friend yesterday, then chuckled loudly at his own remark.

After eight weeks of campaigning, his candidacy is in danger of falling short here in New Hampshire, and Mr. Buchanan knows it.

The conservative commentator still hopes to deal President Bush a major political defeat, or at least a serious embarrassment, in the Feb. 18 presidential primary.

But with Election Day a week from next Tuesday, the polls have yet to fully reflect what Mr. Buchanan calls the "tremendous expressions of good will" he has met in the towns and cities of this economically depressed state. Despite recent signs that his campaign may finally be gaining ground, he continues to attract less than 30 percent of the likely GOP vote.

If he hopes to match what some regard as the benchmark for his candidacy -- Democrat Eugene McCarthy's 42 percent against President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 -- the challenger must lure new recruits into his anti-Bush protest army. The trick will be to do so without alienating his hard-right supporters.

In a late-starting attempt to broaden his appeal, he has begun to do more than simply attack the president, though that remains the focus of his hard-hitting TV ads, in which Buchanan supporters taunt Mr. Bush to "read our lips."

Now, he's trying to let voters know what he would do if elected.

"I want folks to vote 'for' Pat Buchanan," he explained the other night to an audience of 500 people at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H.

His "positive" agenda includes a freeze on federal spending and hiring and a partial rollback of the congressional pay raise.

"When the country's in trouble, the leaders ought to suffer along with the people," he said to applause.

In an echo of Reaganism, he's demanding a major middle-class tax cut, "not these pathetic, timid tax cuts" Mr. Bush has proposed.

Mr. Buchanan is having difficulty, though, going beyond his Japan-thrashing, bureaucrat-bashing rhetoric. He fumbled awkwardly during a question-and-answer session, when voters asked what he would do about homelessness or the problems of mentally handicapped adults. (That may represent progress, of a sort, for Mr. Buchanan; in a pre-Christmas visit to a homeless shelter in the state's largest city, he advocated jailing homeless people who persist in asking strangers for money.)

"The hardest thing for Buchanan to do will be to grow his candidacy without losing the true-believers," said Thomas Rath, a Concord attorney and Bush campaign adviser. "I think he is going to have a hard time because he has so strongly identified himself as the candidate of anger."

A statewide opinion survey by University of New Hampshire political scientist David Moore confirms that Mr. Buchanan's appeal remains largely that of a protest candidate. When asked why they were supporting him, fully half of the Buchanan backers said they wanted to send a message to Mr. Bush, while fewer than one in five said they thought Mr. Buchanan was the better candidate.

New Hampshire Republicans still give Mr. Bush very low marks for his handling of the economy, the poll showed, although they like him personally. And despite the president's aggressive effort to persuade this state that he cares about it, the precise outcome of the primary vote remains in doubt.

The best advice for measuring the nervousness of Mr. Bush's campaign advisers in the closing days of the race: Watch TV.

The Bush team is considering running TV ads critical of the conservative challenger, according to Mr. Rath. One line of attack reportedly under consideration would link Mr. Buchanan's opposition to the gulf war and his objections to Mr. Bush's economic plan to the anti-Bush positions of such liberal Democrats as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Alan Cranston, D-Calif.

No incumbent Republican president has ever resorted to negative ads in the New Hampshire primary, and if Mr. Bush goes negative in the "air war," it will be a sign that he and his advisers are still worried about the Buchanan threat.

The Bush campaign is already going all-out on the ground to fight Mr. Buchanan for conservative support, with some success.

In recent weeks, the White House has sent a steady stream of conservative notables into New Hampshire to urge Mr. Bush's re-election. Besides the president, who is to make two more visits next week, they include Vice President Dan Quayle, former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, former White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp, Reps. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Robert K. Dornan, R-Calif., and longtime Reagan aide Lyn C. Nofziger.

Mr. Buchanan, who dispensed hardball political advice to Presidents Nixon and Reagan, knew when he announced in December that he would be badly outgunned by the White House.

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