A Buchanan olive branch, and a warning to the GOP 'Keep your door open,' he tells party leaders, or Clinton will win

Campaign 1996

February 22, 1996|By Paul West and Susan Baer | Paul West and Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Patrick J. Buchanan, the new leader in the three-way Republican presidential contest, extended a conciliatory hand to Republican leaders yesterday, asking them to "keep your door open to me."

But Mr. Buchanan, who leads in the race for convention delegates, isn't expecting overtures from those he calls the knights and barons of the old order.

"I think they will rally around Bob Dole, and I think they'll make a terrible mistake," he said in an interview on NBC-TV. "They'll all start calling me names, which is foolish. And, I think, in panic, they will behave like men in panic."

Mr. Buchanan's evolution from protest candidate to serious contender has some mainstream Republicans thinking for the first time about a prospect they're convinced would reverse the party's gains of the past two years: a Buchanan-led ticket in November.

"Clinton vs. Buchanan: You'd have a 1964 all over again," said former Sen. Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, referring to Sen. Barry M. Goldwater's landslide loss to President Lyndon B. Johnson that cost Republicans dozens of seats in the House and Senate.

Mr. Buchanan responds that if party leaders "will simply open the door" to him, "we can put together a coalition that will beat Bill Clinton."

But, he warns, "if the Republican Party does not address the issues I'm addressing and bring these folks in, who, it's quite obvious, support me strongly, I don't see how they beat Bill Clinton. They are too narrowly based in Washington. They represent too much of the corporate interests. They don't represent Middle America."

Such talk grates on members of the Republican establishment, who maintain that Mr. Buchanan has set them up as a straw man for his political benefit.

"There is no 'establishment' in the Republican Party that I can put my finger on," said Mr. Rudman, part of a group of party stalwarts who went to bat for Mr. Dole in New Hampshire in a futile effort to thwart the Buchanan brigades. "That's wonderful rhetoric on Buchanan's part to make people think he's being ganged up on."

Republican officials have lined up impressively behind the Dole candidacy, including 24 Republican governors, 30 senators and more House members than even the Dole organization seems able to keep track of. Mr. Buchanan has no such support, and he doesn't hesitate to boast about that as proof of his distance from conventional Washington insiders.

Targeting Buchanan

For their part, Mr. Dole and Lamar Alexander, the third contestant in what appears to be a three-way Republican race, took their own shots at Mr. Buchanan yesterday.

Mr. Dole said the Republican campaign has become "a race between the mainstream and the extreme." And Mr. Alexander, calling the contest "a battle for the soul of our country," said: "We can't allow 'Buchananism' to be the future of the Republican Party."

Among Republicans in Washington, there was little official re- sponse to Mr. Buchanan's primary triumph, or to the possibility that he might become the nominee, a prospect that many establishment Republicans were considering for the first time. Most agreed that it wasn't panic time. Yet.

"They're in the 'wow' phase right now," said one well-connected Republican lobbyist, adding that leading congressional Republicans were trying to decide whether to make a public show of support for Mr. Dole.

Washington abuzz

If the public reaction was muted, in private, Mr. Buchanan's victory was buzzing through Republican and conservative circles Washington.

"Every time two or more Republicans get together, the conversation starts with 10 minutes on Pat Buchanan," said Edward M. Rogers Jr., a former Bush White House aide. "When you greet another Republican, the first words out of your mouth are, 'Whaddya think?' "

Dave Mason, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said that even though he didn't think Mr. Buchanan's victory meant a great deal, "it's certainly the talk of the town."

'The problem with Buchanan'

Although Mr. Buchanan's views on social issues, such as his fervent opposition to abortion, appeal to many conservatives, his economic positions -- notably his desire to impose barriers on international trade -- are not as warmly embraced, Mr. Mason says.

"The problem with Buchanan and conservatives is that his trade and economic policies are not conservative," he said. "It's as simple as that. He splits the conservative coalition."

Mr. Buchanan, who is assembling one of the most unusual coalitions in modern Republican history, rejects that argument.

"I represent the Perot folks that the Republicans drove off," he said yesterday. "It was the Republican establishment, not me, that lost them. I'm trying to bring them back."

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