'Paul Revere' Buchanan sounds apocalypse again

March 21, 1995|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Roughly three years ago, news commentator Pat Buchanan, a self-styled Paul Revere of Republican conservatism, celebrated his surprising 37 percent vote against President George Bush in the 1992 New Hampshire GOP primary by declaring that he had sent "King George" packing back across the state border into Massachusetts.

It was a clever line and it was valid for the moment, because the showing by this blustery fellow -- who had never even run for sheriff anywhere -- was a major embarrassment for the sitting president.

But this latter-day Paul Revere's wake-up call was not so much to his followers as to the Bush campaign, which then regrouped and routed Buchanan in every single primary thereafter.

In his second bid for the Republican presidential nomination that Buchanan has just launched in New Hampshire, "King George" no longer sits on the throne, aloof to the concerns of that state's economic woes as Bush was.

So the acerbic Buchanan will have no easy foil for his barbs this time around. Nor can he simply switch his ire to "King Bill," because he will have to share President Clinton as a target with the gathering field of Republican challengers.

To the nimble-minded Buchanan, this will not be an insurmountable obstacle. He is the most pure, undiluted apostle not only of Reaganomics but of old-fashioned isolationist Republicanism and new-fashioned cultural conservatism. He has the strongest ideological claim on the far right edge of a party that has long since made a fossil of the species that once called itself liberal Republican and doesn't have much of a center anymore, either.

Other hopefuls like Bob Dole and Lamar Alexander, well aware of this condition in their party, are --ing further to the right, and Phil Gramm is holding fast with his observation that he was "conservative before it was cool" to be one.

But none of them can hope to compete with Buchanan for the hearts of the far right True Believers, especially as these three dance around the abortion issue, declaring their anti-abortion posture but saying that those who hold a different view should not be chased out of the party.

On this, as on most other issues, Buchanan is unambiguous in his conservatism, and hence can look for support to the religious right that is growing increasingly influential in the Republican Party. He has their hearts, but the question is whether he can win their heads, and those of a large segment of other Republican voters, as they contemplate the choice of a candidate most of them believe today will beat Clinton next year.

It is one thing to run a presidential campaign to wound the incumbent or to send him a message, and quite another to run one that goes beyond those objectives to capture the party's nomination, let alone the election. Just ask other essentially protest candidates like George C. Wallace and Eugene J. McCarthy.

Buchanan insists he has a shot at the prize, but he is still in the message-sending mode. His target this time is a party that could be lured away from the True Path by candidates who are allowing themselves detours on a few issues like abortion to appeal to voters who tell pollsters they favor moderation on that issue.

Arguments continue to be heard within the GOP over Buchanan's fiery speech to the party convention in Houston in 1992, when he warned of religious and cultural wars being waged in the country. Bush supporters say that it may have cost their man the presidency, though it is much more likely that it was Ross Perot's 19 percent of the vote that probably did him in.

In his announcement speech yesterday, Buchanan did not back off his 1992 theme, proclaiming that he may have lost the nomination but had won "the battle for the soul" of the party. And he pledged to "fight and win the cultural struggle for America," using "the bully pulpit of the presidency" to "chase the purveyors of sex and violence back beneath the rocks from whence they came."

Presidential politics must deal with two separate contests, one for the nomination and the other for the general election.

Preaching the pure, undiluted conservative line is essentially a nomination strategy, and one that could undo Buchanan in the second stage. But getting to it is the first imperative, and Pat Buchanan's conservatism-with-the-bark-off should, at a minimum, keep the other GOP contenders squirming.

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