So far, Buchanan's is the only sandwich with any beef in it

February 23, 1996|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- If there is one political lesson in the dilemma of the Republican Party today, it is that message is critical.

This is a lesson that campaign strategists understand and teach to their candidates although not one that all candidates are able to accept.

But it is glaringly apparent that Pat Buchanan has become a major force in the competition for the Republican nomination, despite all the baggage he carries, because he has sent a message that a significant segment of the electorate understands.

He is saying that the policies of the federal government -- including those on trade but not limited to them -- have put the economic security of many middle-class Americans in jeopardy.

By contrast, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is telling primary ,, voters they should support him because he has the most experience. He is saying, in effect, that he has been around so long he is entitled to the nomination.

And Lamar Alexander is saying that he is the candidate who can defeat Bill Clinton because he has fresh ideas in contrast to no ideas (Mr. Dole) or bad ideas (Mr. Buchanan). But what is lacking in Mr. Alexander's case is any coherent picture of where he wants to take the country. Instead, he offers only a few supportive particulars, such as turning welfare over to local charities and organizing a new branch of the armed forces to police national borders.

The pale quality of the Dole and Alexander themes is most apparent when they are contrasted with the message Ronald Reagan sent when he defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Everyone understood Mr. Reagan intended to be confrontational with the Soviet Union as the major element of his foreign policy and determined at home to reverse the direction of social and tax policy.

No one expects either Messrs. Dole or Alexander to be another Reagan. Nor does anyone imagine that Mr. Buchanan has skills comparable to those of his one-time boss.

But he discovered the economic fears of middle-class Americans during his challenge to George Bush in 1992. And he knows that, despite the improved economy under three years of Bill Clinton, those fears have persisted. Even those who have decent jobs today look around them and see thousands of jobs being abolished every day and wonder when it may be their turn.

The evidence of this insecurity about the economy has been out there for months, although perhaps not immediately apparent.

The wrong track

For example, opinion polls have continued to show more than 50 percent of Americans believe the country is ''off on the wrong track'' rather than ''headed in the right direction.''

The ''wrong track'' number is one that poll-takers and smart politicians take very seriously. The rule has been that when it creeps over 50 percent incumbents have cause for concern. If it reaches 60 or 65 percent, which has happened in some recent surveys, they are in serious trouble.

In the past, however, the wrong-track number has reflected the economic indicators. When the unemployment and inflation rates are down, so is the share of Americans who believe the country is on the wrong track.

So the situation in this campaign season is an anomaly -- strong economic statistics but still a lack of confidence. And that is just what Pat Buchanan is exploiting in this early stage of the Republican competition.

Bob Dole is a prisoner of 35 years in Congress. Confronted with a problem, he responds by talking about holding hearings or amending a piece of legislation. To voters looking at a presidential candidate, it is green eyeshade stuff.

Lamar Alexander offers a somewhat longer view. He likes to talk about turning more authority back to the local communities where people ''know what to do'' to solve their own problems. And he does offer some specifics about how he would accomplish that purpose.

But the Tennessee Republican has allowed the perception to develop that he is a candidate of political gimmicks rather than message. He is the one with the red checked shirts, he is the one chanting ''Remember your ABCs, Alexander beats Clinton.'' And although the electability argument is a valid one and, polls suggest, helpful to him, it is not a substitute for a broader message about what the country would be like under his leadership.

Mr. Buchanan's message probably is not enough to sustain him. has left a paper trail of inflammatory positions on too many issues for many Republicans to accept him. But there are many others listening and liking what they hear.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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