Tenacious Buchanan shows where to hit Bush

March 11, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Super Tuesday in the Republican presidential race proved to be not much different from the previous three Tuesdays of the 1992 election year -- except in reinforcing that President Bush, while running safely ahead for renomination, has a tenacious bulldog biting his ankle with no indication that he intends to let go.

Once again, the president dominated the Republican primaries and caucuses -- this time there were 11 of them in the single biggest day of voting of the season, including delegate-rich Texas and Florida. But also once again, challenger Patrick J. Buchanan provided a disturbing reminder to Mr. Bush that a good portion of voters casting Republican ballots either oppose the president or want to send him a message to shape up, at least on the domestic front.

Robert Teeter, the George Bush-Dan Quayle campaign manager, was predicting on the night of the New Hampshire primary three weeks ago that Mr. Bush would have the nomination wrapped up by the night of Super Tuesday.

Practically speaking, Mr. Teeter was right, with the president now having swept through 26 state contests, all but shutting Mr. Buchanan out of convention delegates as a result of the Republican Party's winner-take-all allocation. Mr. Buchanan has been able to win a handful by carrying a few congressional districts, but is no threat to Mr. Bush's renomination.

He is, however, becoming an increasing threat to the president's re-election by demonstrating week after week Mr. Bush's vulnerability and by spelling out the ingredients of the public discontent with him. Not only has Mr. Buchanan's tenacity kept vTC the president on the defensive and displayed his campaign's uncertainty of direction; it also has provided the Democrats with ammunition and a game plan to use against the president in the fall.

Mr. Buchanan has been plainly frustrated about his inability to score a breakthrough, shattering his early dream of actually driving Mr. Bush from the race as Democrat Eugene J. McCarthy dispatched President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. But he has replaced that dream with another -- so weakening Mr. Bush that he will lose his grip on the Republican Party, not during the campaign but afterward, so that "true" conservatives of Mr. Buchanan's ilk can recapture the Reagan Revolution he believes Mr. Bush has usurped.

As Mr. Buchanan presses on -- he was in Michigan last night getting a jump on next Tuesday's primary there -- he is talking increasingly not about winning the nomination but about igniting a "movement" to take back that revolution. He has been reminding audiences that he was a foot soldier in the Barry Goldwater political army as early as 1960 when the Arizona senator set in motion the grass-roots conservative movement that finally produced President-elect Ronald Reagan in 1980.

When Mr. Buchanan launched his long-shot bid last December, he said he would not stay in the race if he got "clobbered" by the president. By any ordinary yardstick, losing by 2 to 1 in primary after primary ought to qualify. But Mr. Buchanan is a street fighter by nature, and he has been angered by the president's efforts to dismiss him by sending surrogates to answer his charges. As the hope of a Buchanan nomination fades, another is shaping of this television commentator turned political candidate addressing the Republican National Convention in Houston in August, and arousing the conservative faithful from their passivity. Mr. Buchanan well remembers that his first political hero, Mr. Goldwater, did just that at the 1960 convention when, bowing to the nomination of Richard M. Nixon, he delivered a fiery call of "Wake up, conservatives" that started the drive that won him the nomination in 1964.

From all signs, President Bush has grown weary of campaigning against the relentless bulldog and intends to present himself much more in the presidential than in the candidate mode in the remaining primaries and caucuses stretching into June. That posture may make it more difficult for Mr. Buchanan to draw continued news media coverage, but there is no reason to suspect Mr. Buchanan's interest in going to the convention as an active candidate will flag.

Mr. Buchanan may have trouble winning permission to speak at the convention, because a majority of delegates from five states must petition for such permission, and right now winning five state primaries and caucuses looks unlikely for Mr. Buchanan. But his handful of delegates can raise a ruckus over the platform, or threaten to, as a means of nudging the party further rightward.

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