WASHINGTON -- President Bush's political woes deepened yesterday as his Republican challenger gained strength and the Democrats moved to crown Paul E. Tsongas and Bill Clinton as front-runners.
Primaries in Maryland, Georgia and Colorado may have narrowed the Democratic field, as the two Midwestern senators, Bob Kerrey and Tom Harkin, ran far behind, while Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. surged into contention with a remarkable showing in the West.
The day's loudest message was directed at Mr. Bush, who suffered another setback at the hands of TV pundit Patrick J. Buchanan.
Bush campaign strategists confidently predicted two weeks ago that the challenger had peaked in New Hampshire, and they relished the prospect of exterminating the Buchanan threat by the end of this month. But Mr. Buchanan matched or exceeded his New Hampshire showing with a strong vote in Georgia, a state in considerably better economic shape, while running well in Maryland, a moderate Republican stronghold.
Mr. Bush said in a prepared statement last night that he was "another step closer" to his goal of winning every Republican primary and caucus. But with roughly one-third of his own party continuing to vote against him, he now faces the prospect of a prolonged, and potentially damaging, nomination struggle against the conservative commentator.
"They should have driven a stake through his heart [in New Hampshire]. They've allowed him to live too long," says Thomas Rath, a top Bush campaign adviser in the first primary state. "We are now mirroring what happens to the Democrats. The nomination contest is pulling the party to the [right], leaving the middle wide open."
Mr. Buchanan celebrated with supporters in Atlanta last night, -- saying he had met his goal of turning Georgia into the New Hampshire of the South.
"We've done it again!" he exulted. "We're going to go all the way, my friends. . . . We can win this nomination."
Actually, Mr. Bush still seems certain of winning renomination. But unlike Ronald Reagan, who ran unopposed in the 1984 primaries, Mr. Bush is being forced to devote millions of dollars and months of campaigning to fending off a Republican opponent and restoring his own base instead of strengthening himself for the general election.
Moderate Republicans joined conservatives in voting against Mr. Bush yesterday, with better than two of every five Buchanan voters in Georgia saying they wouldn't support Mr. Bush in the fall, exit polls showed.
GOP voters are continuing to vent their anger over Mr. Bush's decision to break his no-tax-increase pledge, which he said yesterday was the biggest mistake of his presidency. At the same time, continuing attacks from Mr. Buchanan over emotional issues like funding for the arts threaten to further undermine Republican enthusiasm for the president.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Buchanan's message builds up George Bush's negatives in the South," says Eddie Mahe, a former executive director of the Republican National Committee. There's no way that's good for George Bush."
Mr. Buchanan's bid to attract conservative Democrats and independents in Georgia raises the stakes for his next big showdown with Mr. Bush -- less than two weeks from now, in Michigan, where Democrats may vote in the Republican primary. Blue-collar anger over Mr. Bush's trade policies and Mr. Buchanan's protectionist "America First" message could combine to make that state a political trap for the president.
Yesterday's results are likely to intensify the debate within the Bush campaign over how best to repel the Buchanan candidacy. In Georgia, the Bush campaign ran a series of negative TV ads attacking him, but Mr. Buchanan still managed to draw a surprisingly large vote.
"If you don't get Buchanan's numbers down soon, his momentum will just continue to build," warns Larry McCarthy, a Republican political consultant.
Mr. McCarthy, a former associate of Roger Ailes, Mr. Bush's 1988 adman, believes the Bush campaign pulled its punches in Georgia. As the campaign heads into the Super Tuesday states of the Deep South and Southwest, he says, "I think you'll see some roundhouse swings [at Mr. Buchanan], because I don't think they want him around in California," which votes in early June.
For the Democrats, "Junior Tuesday" may have determined the finalists in the race to take on Mr. Bush in November.
Both Mr. Tsongas and Mr. Clinton scored victories in their must-win states, Maryland and Georgia, respectively. The outcome of the closely fought race in Colorado was expected to decide if either could claim bragging rights as the pre-eminent
candidate at the moment.
But the real answer to who's in front won't be settled before March 17, in the Great Lakes industrial states of Illinois and Michigan. The primaries there are likely to be down to three major candidates, unless Mr. Harkin and Mr. Kerrey can find some way to get back into the action.