Buchanan reveling in race in Arizona His crowds are big and enthusiastic, as primaries head west

Campaign 1996

February 27, 1996|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHOENIX -- With primary elections in Arizona and North and South Dakota, the West begins today to exert some influence over the Republican presidential nomination. Sen. Bob Dole is favored in the Dakotas, but Patrick J. Buchanan's aggressive candidacy poses a serious threat here in the Valley of the Sun.

After having upset Mr. Dole in New Hampshire, Mr. Buchanan made two brief stops in South Dakota before committing himself full time to Arizona. He has been relentlessly pounding home his arguments against free trade with neighboring Mexico and against the flow of illegal immigrants into this and other border states.

Mr. Dole, by contrast, has run a stop-and-start campaign in Arizona. To the consternation of his campaign leaders and supporters here, he skipped a statewide televised debate with Mr. Buchanan, Steve Forbes and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander. The Senate majority leader had no public events in the state until late Saturday afternoon, at a senior citizens' rally, and he left Arizona on Sunday, a schedule that also baffled and dismayed his local backers.

Although polls indicate a close race among Mr. Dole, Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Forbes, Mr. Buchanan's crowds have been much larger and more enthusiastic. The news commentator has conducted an in-your-face campaign, at times mocking Mr. Dole's effort here. At several stops, Mr. Buchanan displayed a map of Arizona marked with the towns he had visited, saying he would give it to Mr. Dole to help him find his way around.

Wearing a black cowboy hat and at times a Western string tie, Mr. Buchanan has clearly relished the image of the tough guy. At a gun show Sunday, he triumphantly raised a shotgun over his head to raucous cheers. He told listeners he was their staunchest friend on the issue of gun ownership.

"It is the innate right of every human being to protect his family and bear arms in that protection," Mr. Buchanan said.

Sen. John McCain, the former national chairman for Sen. Phil Gramm, who has quit the race, acknowledged in an interview yesterday that his new candidate, Mr. Dole, has a tough challenge here.

"There is no doubt," he said, "that the [high-turnout] voters are on the Buchanan side. He has worked very hard here. But there is resentment to a lot of this Mexican-bashing, and we cherish our Hispanic background."

Mr. Buchanan has made a pitch to Mexican-American voters on trade, claiming that the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade threaten their jobs and wages. But he has risked losing their support with harsh rhetoric against Mexican illegal immigrants, calling for a "time out" on all immigration and for the establishment of English as the nation's official language.

Karen Johnson, Mr. Buchanan's state campaign manager, says that despite opposition to his immigration policy among some Mexican-Americans, most of those who are registered Republicans share his resistance to illegal immigration.

"People who came in legally are unhappy with the illegals," she said.

Also, she says, most are Roman Catholic and will support Mr. Buchanan's opposition to abortion.

Mr. Dole, casting Mr. Buchanan as a candidate of "extreme" views, warned here that "we shouldn't play on people's fears; we should appeal to their hopes."

The problem with NAFTA and GATT, Mr. Dole argued, has been that President Clinton "hasn't used all the weapons Congress has given him" to enforce those trade pacts effectively.

Mr. Forbes, who defeated Mr. Dole in a low-turnout primary Saturday in Delaware in which Mr. Forbes was the only active campaigner, has tried to use that showing to reinvigorate his campaign here, in which he again has spent millions on TV ads. In street campaigning over the weekend, however, his crowds were sparse.

The fourth active competitor here, Mr. Alexander, is not considered a serious factor. Mr. Alexander's argument that he is the best-qualified candidate because he is a former governor drew derisive laughter from the debate audience. Mr. Buchanan drew a roar by retorting: "Lamar, we're not electing a resume."

The stakes for Dole

Having seen his expectations of an early nomination derailed in New Hampshire, Mr. Dole can ill afford another setback here. dTC The state party chairman, Dodie Londen, predicted that Mr. Buchanan would win Arizona today and suggested that Mr. Dole might have served himself better not to have come at all, rather than quickly hopping in and out.

Until Mr. Gramm withdrew from the race, after defeats in the Louisiana and Iowa caucuses, Arizona had been considered Gramm country. Most of the state's top officeholders, including Gov. Fife Symington and Mr. McCain, backed Mr. Gramm. But with the Texas senator out, Mr. Buchanan came on with a rush.

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