MANCHESTER, N.H. — Manchester,N.H. WITH LESS than two weeks to go, conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan seems to be bumping his head in his challenge to President Bush in the Republican primary here.
Ironically, there is some evidence Mr. Buchanan's campaign is stalling because Mr. Bush is using effectively an argument that Mr. Buchanan himself has made for years -the Democratic -controlled congress is to blame for the failure of government to solve most of the nation's problems.
A new opinion survey of Republicans and independents likely to vote in the Feb. 18 primary made by University of New Hampshire poll-taker David Moore puts Mr. Bush at 60 percent to 23 for Mr. Buchanan and 17 undecided. Other polls have the margin somewhat narrower but still show the president with a lead of 30 points or more.
The fine print of the UNH survey defines the problem for Mr. Buchanan -- that he has not yet persuaded most voters here that he is, as he puts it himself, a "credible alternative" to Mr. Bush. Half of Mr. Buchanan's supporters said they were voting for him primarily to send a message of dissatisfaction with Mr. Bush; only 29 percent said they preferred Mr. Buchanan to Mr. Bush.
The most telling figure, however, may have been a finding that, by a margin of 3 to 1, Republicans believe that the president was forced by Congress to agree to the 1990 tax increases rather than that Mr. Bush voluntarily broke his promise. That line strikes at the heart of Mr. Buchanan's campaign theme that Mr. Bush should be replaced because he broke his pledge of "no new taxes."
Mr. Buchanan seems to recognize the change in the political dynamics. In the last few days he has shifted his emphasis away from "send a message" on the tax issue to outlining his own program for economic recovery if he were elected. He is advocating, among other things, a freeze on government
spending, reductions in both presidential and congressional salaries and an end to foreign aid programs. And he is promising a tough, confrontational style in dealing with congressional Democrats. But what he does not appear to be doing is convincing the voters that he is a realistic possibility to win in the end.
bTC The reading of the electorate in the Bush campaign based on its own polling data is clearly the same. Mr. Bush is now running commercials in which he calls on voters to "send a real message" to Congress by supporting him here.
Although the president no longer appears to be threatened with an outright defeat here, there is still the possibility Mr. Buchanan will poll enough votes to embarrass Mr. Bush and contribute to the picture of him as a flawed candidate for re-election. But there is no consensus on the level of vote for the conservative challenger that would constitute a de facto success.
Aside from the success of the Congress-bashing approach by the White House, Mr. Buchanan's campaign seems to have suffered from two other factors. One is that he relied too long on the accusation of Mr. Bush's betrayal on taxes when, as Mr. Buchanan himself concedes, the "real number one issue is jobs." The second is the perception of the conservative challenger as an ideological loose cannon who may have been guilty of anti-Semitism.
Mr. Buchanan questions the idea that his extremism has been damaging. "I just don't think that's working up here," he said the other day. But that is the kind of thing the candidate might be the last to know. And other Republicans, including harsh critics of Mr. Bush, argue that the picture of Mr. Buchanan as an `D ultra-conservative is one that gives pause to potential primary voters concerned about the kind of message they send Feb. 18.
Whatever the result, there is little basis for the White House to be reassured by the outcome here. Mr. Bush is an incumbent president who won a critical primary victory in New Hampshire four years ago who is running against a columnist and talk show blatherer without either a resume or a political organization worthy of the name. Although 74 percent of the voters in the UNH poll approved Mr. Bush's performance, more than half disapproved of his handling of the economy.
The evidence of the political vulnerability of George Bush is abundant even if, as now appears likely, Pat Buchanan may be the wrong messenger to capitalize on it.
Mr. Bush is not the pushover he thought.