ATLANTA -- As President Bush was making a positive appeal here for re-election, his supporters appeared to be orchestrating a behind-the-scenes campaign to pressure his Republican opponent out of the race.
Rep. Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, led the call yesterday for conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan to withdraw from the heated primary contest, charging that his negative attacks on Mr. Bush are potentially hurtful to the conservative movement.
"I think his whole campaign has degenerated into a disgusting effort, and frankly, I think he ought to pull out of the race," Mr. Gingrich told reporters shortly before the president arrived to address a gathering of about 2,000 Republicans and lobbyists.
White House Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner aborted at the last minute Mr. Gingrich's plan to issue his denunciation of Mr. Buchanan from the speaker's rostrum. But the congressman said that he had consulted with the White House about his remarks, that he would continue to speak out in other forums and that he expected others to join his effort.
Fred Brown, chairman of the National Black Republican Council, said that within the next few days, "there's going to be a groundswell from across this country" calling on Mr. Buchanan to "do the honorable thing and withdraw."
Like Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Brown said he took particular offense at Buchanan ads attacking Mr. Bush for supporting civil rights legislation that Mr. Buchanan calls a "quota bill." Another ad has attacked the president for "allowing the National Endowment for the Arts to finance a film exhibition of nearly nude males dancing," which the ad labeled pornography.
Mr. Gingrich, who serves as House minority whip, said he and many conservatives supported the civil rights legislation because they believed it did not require quotas. He also noted that the film in question dated to the Reagan administration.
"There's no difference between a Buchanan ad and a David Duke ad," Mr. Gingrich said, linking the columnist to the former Ku Klux Klan member and Nazi sympathizer.
Jerry Woodruff, a Buchanan spokesman in Washington, dismissed the complaints as a sign of panic in the Bush camp. "They should take a couple of Valiums and call us in the morning," he said.
Georgia is the only state since the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 18 in which the two candidates have battled head-to-head with extensive personal campaigning and negative advertisements attacking each other.
Mr. Bush, who arrived at midday yesterday after casting an early ballot for "the winner in November" -- himself -- in Houston, followed his speech with a visit to a bingo hall at an American Legion lodge.
Mr. Buchanan has been here much of the past week.
The venue for this direct confrontation was chosen by Mr. Buchanan. With its conservative tradition and practice of allowing crossover voting between parties, Georgia was a more attractive choice for the challenger than Maryland or the other states holding primaries Tuesday.
What worries the White House is the possibility that Mr. Buchanan is only a symbol of disenchantment with the president that can't be overcome simply by discrediting the GOP challenger.
In South Dakota last week, where Mr. Buchanan's name was not on the ballot, 31 percent of the Republicans cast their votes for "uncommitted" instead of the incumbent president of their party.
"When you think that 31 percent of those Republicans got out of bed and took the trouble to go down to vote 'uncommitted,' I think you can see how much trouble Bush is in," said Betsy Hart, an executive with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Mr. Gingrich said yesterday that he expects Mr. Buchanan to draw about the same percentage of votes here, "but only 3 percent will actually be for Pat Buchanan."
Mr. Bush pleaded with Georgia Republicans to resist the temptation to send a protest vote.
"You don't have to always be saying something bad about somebody else," he said. "We've got lots to be proud of, lots to advocate, lots to be for. If you want to send a message to Washington, send this president back for four more years."