Buchanan's zealous quest is more than quixotic

February 17, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Staff Writer

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Outside his headquarters on Elm Street Saturday morning, Patrick J. Buchanan stood on a car hood addressing a small army of eager young canvassers.

On primary day, he told his political foot soldiers, they would "cut through the hollow army of King George like a knife through butter." The troops cheered lustily as they dispersed to take their hero's message to the doorsteps of New Hampshire.

Whether or not that prophecy comes to pass tomorrow -- and the polls suggest it won't -- it has been quite a 10 weeks for the television commentator-turned-presidential candidate since he launched his bid to dethrone "King George" Bush from leadership of the Republican Party and, almost coincidentally it seems, from the presidency.

Back in December, Mr. Buchanan's candidacy was greeted with a mixture of surprise and amusement among his old colleagues in the news media, some of whom could recall him traipsing around this state 24 years ago as press secretary to another Republican with unflagging political ambition, Richard M. Nixon.

Mr. Buchanan's challenge to President Bush was variously viewed at the outset as the quixotic quest of a public crank or the crass calculation of a lecture-circuit celebrity bent on building his fees.

Both were seemingly wrong, although Mr.Buchanan's rhetoric does scold and scald, and his newfound political notoriety TC certainly will not hurt his wallet whenever he gets off the campaign stump and back to lucrative college and corporate podiums.

This adolescent disciple of Barry Goldwater who later toiled in two White Houses out of personal loyalty to Mr. Nixon and then ideological faith to Ronald Reagan has emerged in the GOP primary here as a ferocious avenger of what he sees as the betrayal by Mr. Bush of real, unvarnished conservatism.

Like most true believers in the Reagan Revolution, Mr. Buchanan always had reservations about the man who labeled Mr. Reagan's plan for economic Valhalla "voodoo economics" and then embraced it as his own when Mr. Reagan picked him as his running mate in 1980.

Those reservations hardened to a sense of betrayal in the Bush presidency, particularly when Mr. Bush broke his "no new taxes" pledge and became, as Mr. Buchanan now charges, "the biggest taxer and spender in history" and a "Rockefeller Republican" who plays footsie with the Democratic Congress.

Linking someone with the late Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller is, to Reagan Republicans, akin to saying he has an infectious disease, but Pat Buchanan never has been one to mince words.

This intensity of feeling and rhetoric has found particularly fertile ground this season in New Hampshire, where there is no state income or sales tax and where Mr. Bush himself used the local anathema toward taxes to stop Sen. Bob Dole in the 1988 primary.

Mr. Buchanan says it will be up to the news media to decide what constitutes success tomorrow, but "we're on the threshold of crossing our first great milestone."

He argues that he already has Mr. Bush on the defensive and that he will not be deterred from pressing on with what he clearly considers a crusade to restore the Reagan Revolution.

It was said nearly 30 years ago in the Goldwater era that the party's right wing cared more about taking over the party from the Eisenhower-Dewey-Rockefeller wing than about electing a president, and that same attitude seems to drive the Buchanan candidacy.

For the first eight weeks of his New Hampshire campaign, Mr. Buchanan -- both on the stump and in tough, relentless radio and television commercials -- unloaded on Mr. Bush as an interloper and impostor, as a big-government advocate in conservative's clothing.

The assault unsettled the Bush campaign to the point that Vice President Dan Quayle and then the president himself headed for New Hampshire to tell voters they cared about their economic plight.

But Mr. Buchanan was seen only as an "agin' " candidate, not giving voters a reason to vote for him.

In the closing weeks, he has attempted to meet that criticism, but the bottom line is that he has cast himself principally as a protest candidate, urging voters to use their votes to "send a message" to Mr. Bush.

Mr. Buchanan says that if he can't do better than the 9 percent Rep. John Ashbrook of Ohio won against Mr. Nixon in 1972, he won't be credible. But in any event, Mr. Buchanan concedes that whatever he gets, he will say it's enough to warrant going on.

He says he will compete aggressively in the Georgia primary March 3 and have an organization for the Maryland primary.

In Georgia, he says, conservatives of his own stripe will give him a good shot against Mr. Bush, and he insists that eventually he will "drive George Bush out of the race."

Mr. Buchanan's ability to persevere likely will depend on raising enough money to keep going, but the right wing of the Republican Party has seldom wavered in backing a true believer.

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