Buchanan threat, first seen in N.H., reiterated by GOP voters in Georgia

March 04, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

ATLANTA -- President Bush has suffered another debilitating embarrassment in the Georgia Republican primary, defeating conservative challenger Patrick J. Buchanan by a politically perfunctory 3-2 margin.

With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, the president led Mr. Buchanan 64 percent to 36 percent.

Although Mr. Bush's triumph here was never in doubt, Mr. Buchanan's success in essentially replicating his showing in the New Hampshire primary two weeks ago sent a clear message to the White House that there is a fundamental weakness in the president's position that cannot be cured with media events and spin control.

Mr. Buchanan's success was made more impressive because of the context of the campaign. In New Hampshire, the challenger clearly exploited a preoccupation with economic conditions that bordered on obsession. But the unemployment rate in Georgia is only half that in New Hampshire, so the issue had far less direct sting. As a result, Mr. Buchanan concentrated on social issues -- including race and pornography -- to try to touch the nerves of culturally conservative voters here.

Mr. Buchanan's showing also seemed more impressive because the White House dropped its above-the-fray detachment and ran an intense campaign of television commercials attacking Mr. Buchanan on issues of patriotism and on his protectionist policies on trade. But the result was essentially no different than it had been when Mr. Bush ignored Mr. Buchanan.

The inference drawn in the political community will be that the president has a chronic weakness within his own party, particularly but not exclusively among conservatives, that may be a sign of serious vulnerability in November. That view is reinforced by the 31 percent vote for "uncommitted" in South Dakota last week and the vote for Mr. Buchanan in Maryland, a state he essentially ignored.

None of this suggests that Mr. Bush is in danger of losing the Republican nomination. At some point, Mr. Buchanan would have to win some primaries and some delegates to represent a genuine threat for the nomination. Nor is it within the realm of reason that the president, a notoriously tenacious politician, would step aside for some alternative other than his extremist challenger. Thus, Mr. Buchanan's repeated claim that Mr. Bush's "whole house of cards" is likely to be collapse isn't realistic.

What is realistic is that the Buchanan challenge will continue to expose weaknesses in Mr. Bush that the Democrats might be able to exploit with the right candidate. In New Hampshire, Mr. Bush went down in the polls after campaigning in person because he seemed insensitive to the concerns of the voters there about their jobs.

Here in Georgia, he was a candidate spooked by the Buchanan threat. When Mr. Buchanan let it be known that he would be attacking the National Endowment for the Arts, Mr. Bush fired its director, John Frohnmayer. When Mr. Buchanan began to appeal to the religious right, the White House changed Mr. Bush's schedule so that he attended a fundamentalist Southern Baptist rather than a Presbyterian church on Sunday. Although Mr. Bush tried to write off the vote here as a message of anger directed at Washington generally, no one would accuse him of presenting a confident, effective campaign of his own.

For the White House, the worst of the bad news is that Mr. Buchanan now will be encouraged to continue his campaign not only through the Super Tuesday primaries next week but into Michigan and beyond. The conservative commentator has become convinced that the big California primary at the end of the road on June 2 offers him a rich opportunity. And his showing in Georgia should at the least maintain the steady flow of money into his campaign and keep the attention of the press focused on his candidacy.

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