Buchanan bid succeeds, sends Bush a message

February 19, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Staff Writer

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Like another Irishman, Democrat Eugene J. McCarthy 24 years ago, Republican Patrick J. Buchanan has severely embarrassed a president of his own party with his strong showing in the first 1992 presidential primary. But don't look for the analogy to go much beyond that.

In 1968, Mr. McCarthy won 42 percent of New Hampshire's Democratic vote against 47 percent on write-ins for President Lyndon B. Johnson, and shortly afterward Mr. Johnson abandoned his plans to seek re-election. George Bush is not about to do an LBJ just because Mr. Buchanan gave him a similar close call last night.

Mr. Johnson pulled out because he realized his re-election suddenly was in real jeopardy and because he convinced himself he could not pursue an acceptable end to the Vietnam War while fighting for his own political survival at home. Mr. Bush is in no such predicament -- not yet anyway, and he is by nature combative, for all the past characterizations of him as a wimp.

The near-rejection of LBJ by New Hampshire voters in 1968 reflected both their frustration over his conduct of the war and their growing animosity toward him as a person, as he became increasingly imperial in manner. The slap that voters gave Mr. Bush last night was also one of frustration, over his failure to recognize their economic distress here.

But except for the most die-hard right-wingers, they were expressing disappointment, not total alienation.

Exit polls conducted jointly by four television networks indicated clearly that in voting for Mr. Buchanan, Republicans were doing HTC precisely what he had been asking them to do since he entered the race 10 weeks ago as a distinct long shot: "sending a message" to the president that they wanted him to pay more attention to their economic plight.

When asked why they voted for their choice, 93 percent of the Bush voters said they had done so because they thought he would make the best president. Asked the same question, 52 percent of the Buchanan voters said they were sending a message to Mr. Bush, compared with 47 percent who said they thought Mr. Buchanan would make the best president.

There was no argument, either, between Bush and Buchanan voters on what the critical election issue was -- the dismal state of the economy, with those who took the bleakest reading of it voting for Mr. Buchanan. Some 63 percent of Buchanan voters rated the economy to be in "poor" shape and another 34 percent rated it "not good." The Bush voters had a less dismal view: 59 percent said the economy was "not good" and 29 percent rated it as "poor."

Mr. Buchanan's pounding of the president for breaking his no-new-taxes pledge, always critical to voters in this state that has no income or sale taxes, also paid off for him.

Thirty percent of Buchanan voters said the tax issue influenced their vote, to only 18 percent of Bush voters.

The hopes of the president's campaign that his success in the Persian Gulf war of a year ago would be a major factor were unrealized. Only 11 percent listed that as an issue that influenced them to vote for Mr. Bush. Mr. Buchanan, who opposed the use of force, had virtually no voting support on that stand.

It will not be surprising if the Bush campaign comes out swinging on this issue as the Republican contest moves South, with the next important primaries in Georgia on March 3, South Carolina on March 7 and in a string of other southern states on Super Tuesday, March 10.

Mr. Buchanan said even before the vote that he was focusing on Georgia as his next best opportunity against the president, although he also will have an organization in Maryland for its March 3 primary.

The television commentator and newspaper columnist turned candidate said before the vote that the news media would determine whether his showing here was strong enough to merit continuing, and there was no doubt last night that the answer was a resounding yes.

The Bush campaign, anticipating a black eye as the New Hampshire primary approached, has been saying that this figured to be the president's toughest state because of the economic situation, and that no matter what happened he would be nominated easily. He still must be heavily favored for renomination, but Mr. Buchanan appears to have enough support to see to it that it won't be easy.

The size of the Buchanan vote indicates he won't have trouble raising the kind of campaign money required to be competitive against the president in selected primary states in the South.

There, Mr. Buchanan hopes that the traditional conservatism of the region will help counter the incumbent's many advantages, including the strong support there for his conduct of the gulf war and a less harsh economic climate. In Georgia, Bush strategists point out, unemployment is only 4 percent, compared with nearly 8 percent in New Hampshire.

Mr. Buchanan will have competition for the right-wing vote in some southern states from former Ku Klux Klansman and Louisiana state legislator David Duke. But Mr. Buchanan vows he will not be sidetracked from his focus on Mr. Bush and his stated objective of driving Mr. Bush from the race before the Republican National Convention.

Robert Teeter, Mr. Bush's campaign manager, has said he expects the president will dispose of the Buchanan challenge by the time the Super Tuesday contests are over.

The Irish are known for irony, and there was a large slice of it in last night's vote.

The Irishman who basked in glory here 24 years ago, Mr. McCarthy, was still on the scene as an ignored also-ran in the Democratic primary. And the young Irish lad who toiled here as press secretary to candidate Richard Nixon in the 1968 GOP primary was now doing the basking -- and laying plans to exploit his sudden success and bring down a president.

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