Buchanan precipitates Republican identity crisis Party leaders fear redefinition of goals will derail '94 gains

Campaign 1996

February 25, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For months, Republican Party National Chairman Haley Barbour has kept his head down, staying in the shadows while the presidential contenders fought it out for the nomination.

But late last week he decided to abandon his low-profile stance. With the GOP picture scrambled by Patrick J. Buchanan's victory in the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Barbour went public with a major address "about what our party stands for, and why."

That the national chairman felt compelled to give such a speech is itself a sign of what the presidential race has wrought: an identity crisis within the Republican Party. To many Americans, it is no longer clear just what it means to be a Republican.

Equally confusing is how the presidential contest seems to be redefining what it means to be a conservative, something all the Republican contenders claim to be. What are we to think when the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the epitome of Democratic liberalism, praises Mr. Buchanan's economic message as an echo of his own?

"I wish Barry Goldwater would get back into the race and say, 'Hey, have you guys forgotten what conservatism is all about?' " says Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma who lectures at Harvard. "I think there are a lot of things that will have to be worked out."

Only a few months ago, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the conservative Republicans in Congress were dominating the national agenda.

Now, remarkably, their "revolution" and its drive for smaller government, lower taxes and a balanced budget are being drowned out, if not forgotten.

Taking their place in the driver's seat is Mr. Buchanan. His success has forced mainstream Republicans to ask themselves whether there is room in the party for his proposals.

Increasingly, the former TV commentator is steering the national debate with such emotionally charged ideas as stopping immigration for five years and erecting barriers to foreign imports that, in the words of Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the No. 2 man in the House GOP leadership, are "poison" to the party.

Multicandidate field helps

Besides issues, Mr. Buchanan has other things going for him. He is the most compelling campaigner in the field. A wordsmith by profession, he's " 'Crossfire'-trained," as he puts it, referring to his old CNN show, which gives him an edge in a contest in which television plays a decisive role.

He is benefiting, as well, from a multicandidate field. While the other candidates are dividing the mainstream Republican vote, he has the most conservative end of the electorate virtually to himself. In New Hampshire, he was able to win with just 27 percent of the vote, and he's favored to win Tuesday's primary in Arizona, the biggest delegate prize to date.

'Mainstream vs. extreme'

Sen. Bob Dole, scrambling to put his campaign back on track after losing the lead to Mr. Buchanan, said the contest had turned into "a race between the mainstream and the extreme."

Former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, the third man in the race, implied that Mr. Buchanan, a White House aide to three Republican presidents, wasn't a true Republican at all. "Buchananism" was the tag he applied repeatedly. He accused Mr. Buchanan, in an Arizona debate Thursday night, of trying to "hijack our party."

This struggle "for the heart and soul of the Republican Party," as Mr. Dole termed it, is about more than name-calling, or even ideas. At root, it's about winning. It goes to the heart of the party's overriding election-year goals: Expand the voter base, reclaim those who defected to Ross Perot's independent candidacy four years ago, defeat Bill Clinton and keep Congress in Republican hands.

Four years ago, Mr. Buchanan's intraparty challenge to President George Bush, whom he lambasted as out of touch with ordinary Americans, helped drive voters away from the Republicans and into the Perot and Clinton camps. Some Republicans worry that the same could happen this year.

"1996 is turning into a competition of negativity and vulnerability," says John J. Pitney Jr., who teaches government at Claremont McKenna College in California. "The choice a lot of Republicans are facing is which of these guys is going to do the least damage to the party."

BTC Crumbling coalition

Morton Blackwell, a conservative activist who deplores the "blood frenzy" on the campaign trail, worries about the wedges being driven between the party's various conservative factions. A Republican national committeeman, he warns that it may become impossible to preserve the conservative coalition unless the candidates turn their fire on Mr. Clinton instead of one another.

Democrats, of course, seem delighted to watch the Republican fratricide. "Let them continue the bloodletting," says Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. "No reason to ruin a good thing."

Growing pains?

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