WASHINGTON -- The way Patrick J. Buchanan was talking yesterday, it almost sounded like he was the winner, rather than the loser, in the Republican nomination fight.
On the morning after his disappointing finish in the Michigan and Illinois primaries, the conservative challenger appeared to be angling for further policy concessions from President Bush and a prime spot at the GOP national convention.
He also seemed to be laying the groundwork for another presidential bid in 1996.
Mr. Buchanan promised to give up the biting TV ads that have shaken the president with powerful attacks on his record, saying he would concentrate instead on promoting his own issues.
But while he acknowledged that "only celestial intervention" would keep Mr. Bush from winning enough delegates for the Republican nomination, the challenger said he was not ready to give up "the hunt."
"You don't get anything by appeasing that gang," Mr. Buchanan said of the Bush campaign. "They respond to a fight. They respond to pressure."
Despite steadily declining shares of the Republican vote after his 37 percent high in the New Hampshire primary a month ago, Mr. Buchanan said he will "husband" his resources to make a final stand against Mr. Bush in the delegate-rich California primary June 2.
He may also campaign in North Carolina before the May 5 primary there, he said.
The White House is doing its best to ignore the conservative commentator-turned candidate as the president focuses on preparing a blast tomorrow against the Democratic-led Congress for failing to pass an economic growth package by his March 20 deadline.
But Bush advisers say they are not sure exactly what Mr. Buchanan is after.
"We have not made any overtures to him. We do not intend to," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. "We see him as the candidate to beat in these primary contests, and we'll just have to continue in that vein until he indicates he wants to pursue another course."
Mr. Buchanan told reporters yesterday that the president cannot win re-election without the disaffected voters who have been attracted to his campaign, and that he wants to stay in the race to ensure their concerns are addressed.
He noted that he has already won several concessions from Mr. Bush, including an apology for breaking his "no new taxes" pledge and the firing of the controversial head of the National Endowment for the Arts. He claimed that he has "strengthened the party for the fall" contest with the Democrats.
However, many political analysts say Mr. Buchanan clearly is continuing his campaign in order to build a foundation upon which to launch a 1996 race.
"He's building a cadre of voters, volunteers and contributors for next time," said Donald J. Devine, a conservative consultant. "Despite what he says, I don't think he has any interest in this election."
Expanding his base to California, widely seen as a must-win state for presidential candidates, is crucial to making a strong bid four years from now, added Jeffrey Bell, a conservative Republican analyst who specializes in populist campaigns.