After New Hampshire, a steep hill ahead for Pat Buchanan On Politics Today


February 20, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Manchester, N.H. -- AT A press conference the morning after his strong New Hampshire vote against President Bush, Republican challenger Pat Buchanan ran into a wall of skeptical questions about where he goes from here.

Robert Teeter, the Bush campaign manager, had just predicted on network television that Mr. Buchanan had gotten about as far as he was going to get, and that the president would win every primary between now and the Super Tuesday contests, mostly in the South, on March 10.

Questioners reminded Mr. Buchanan that he was not going to find any of the approaching states as hospitable on the economic issue as New Hampshire, where unemployment exceeds the national average and voters were clearly angry at Mr. Bush for not paying attention to their plight. Network exit polls indicated that 52 percent of Buchanan voters said they had voted for him to send Mr. Bush a message of their displeasure rather than as an endorsement of the television commentator for president.

How, he was asked, did he think he could bring down an incumbent president, especially in the South where Mr. Bush's leadership of the Persian Gulf war last year struck such responsive chords in this most strongly patriotic region? Especially when Mr. Buchanan had opposed going to war?

The questions themselves defined the dimensions of the challenge ahead for Mr. Buchanan, still basking in his 41 percent vote here. He acknowledged that "we need help, no doubt about it," but added, "unless you've got dreams you can't do it."

Undecided voters came his way late in the primary here, he insisted, not because of his "send a message" plea but because they "saw something in us that they didn't see in the aloof, distant White House." What he has to do now, Mr. Buchanan said, is find a state where he can beat Mr. Bush head-to-head and thus convince him that his political future is past.

That state looks to be Georgia on March 3, where nuisance candidate David Duke has been barred from the ballot. Mr. Buchanan cited as his model the victory over President Gerald Ford by Ronald Reagan in 1976 after Mr. Reagan narrowly missed upsetting the Republican incumbent in New Hampshire.

Mr. Reagan pulled off that feat by hammering away on the issue of national defense, and by running a longish "talking head" television ad that capitalized on his talents before the camera. But this year, with the Cold War over, defense has lost some of its clout as a voting issue, and Mr. Buchanan, for all his television experience, is not yet a Ronald Reagan on the tube.

Also, while Mr. Reagan after his North Carolina victory beat Mr. Ford in several other primaries, including denying him even a single delegate in Texas, Mr. Ford persevered and was renominated.

Mr. Buchanan obviously is hoping that his painting of Mr. Bush as a usurper of and traitor to the Reagan Revolution, chiefly because he agreed to raise taxes after his celebrated "read my lips" pledge not to do so, will galvanize conservatives in the South. He said at the press conference that he intends also to raise Mr. Bush's eventual acceptance of the Democratic anti-discrimination jobs bill as another cave-in on racial quotas in hiring. Bush strategists, while conceding that Mr. Buchanan made a very credible showing in New Hampshire, insist that he simply does not have the money or organization to compete with the president, who has both in abundance, over the intense campaign schedule ahead.

Two earlier presidential challengers in New Hampshire succeeded in bringing down sitting presidents. Estes Kefauver drove Harry Truman to the sidelines in 1952 and Eugene McCarthy forced Lyndon Johnson out in 1968. But George Bush has said he will do "whatever it takes" to win re-election, and Mr. Buchanan says he doesn't doubt it. Still, he sticks to the dream that by showing Mr. Bush somewhere that he has lost the public's confidence, he will step aside.

In the meantime, the Buchanan challenge will keep the president on the defensive and provide ammunition to the Democratic candidates as they use Mr. Bush as a target.

Mr. Buchanan said again here that if Mr. Bush is the GOP nominee, he will vote for him in November. But challenges to incumbents have a way of softening them up for the opposition party, and Mr. Buchanan at the least can harden conservative displeasure with Mr. Bush, to his detriment in the fall.

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