Coming primaries are critical to divided Republicans Buchanan, Alexander, Forbes unbalance equation

February 29, 1996|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After years of rewarding politicians who have paid their dues, the Republicans suddenly find themselves in a situation in which the leading candidates for their presidential nomination are a magazine publisher and a television commentator who have never held public office.

And although Republican leaders are growing testy in their reactions to Steve Forbes and Patrick J. Buchanan, there is still no suggestion of a way to relegate them to the ranks of also-rans from which they have emerged in the past few weeks.

The result is that the next two rounds of primaries -- in South Carolina on Saturday and nine states across the country, including Maryland, next week -- have taken on enormous weight.

Until votes were counted in Arizona, the main question was whether Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole could isolate himself in a two-man contest with Mr. Buchanan in which, the theory goes, the conservative commentator's core of 25 percent to 30 percent of the primary electorate would not be enough to win.

"That's his limit," said Rep. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, a Dole supporter, "and at some point it begins to play against him."

Among leading Republicans, the conviction that Mr. Dole ultimately will be nominated may have been shaken, but it remains.

"If there's anything Republicans are, it's practical," said Tom Korologos, a former White House official and prominent lobbyist. "We may be boring, but we're practical."

But the success of Mr. Forbes has changed the dynamics in a campaign in which change every week is the norm. At the least, it suggests that the party will have to accommodate the two mavericks for weeks or even months to come.

The Republican establishment's reaction against Mr. Forbes, while harsh, has been more muted than that against the vituperative Mr. Buchanan. Sen. John McCain of Arizona spoke for many fellow Republicans when he said Tuesday night: "The Republican Party is not going to nominate somebody whose three greatest challenges were going to prep school, college and taking over his father's business."

Like most of his Senate colleagues, Mr. McCain supports Mr. Dole. But what is lacking from the majority leader's backers is a formula that could help Mr. Dole build his base of about 25 percent in the primaries to something more than 35 percent -- enough to win the three-way contests and enough to deny sustenance to other candidates who are still hanging on.

The immediate target for Mr. Dole is Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor whose third-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire seemed to put him in direct competition with Mr. Dole for the role as the party establishment's champion against Mr. Buchanan. In an interview before the New Hampshire vote, Mr. Alexander said his strategy was to remain a part of the equation until Mr. Dole faded and voters saw Mr. Alexander as their best bet.

Though Mr. Alexander finished far back in Arizona and the Dakotas, he took the same approach to the primaries ahead. "The longer the race goes on, the better I do," he said.

But Dole partisans are growing restive about Mr. Alexander's role in dividing the anti-Buchanan votes. Asked how the Republicans can emerge from their awkward situation, Mr. Korologos replied: "How we get out of it is Lamar gets out of the race."

The problem with that solution, other than Mr. Alexander's refusal to go quietly, is it fails to account for two variables: Mr. Forbes' renewed ability to win votes and Mr. Dole's failure to evoke enthusiasm.

After his distant fourth-place finish in Iowa only 17 days ago, the wealthy publisher was being written off by the political community as an aberration who had enjoyed a brief celebrity purchased with huge amounts of his own money. Now, having spent something more than $40 a vote in Arizona, he has shown that his money, coupled with a positive and optimistic message, can make him a player.

"Every day he continues in it, he becomes a little more salable," Mr. Burr said. "He has a much broader message than just the flat tax. It plays well, and I think he believes it."

Whether Mr. Dole can deliver a compelling message remains unclear. Meanwhile, the setbacks he has suffered in Iowa, New Hampshire and Arizona are making matters more difficult. Opinion polls show his standing slipping in California and Michigan.

The situation is complex enough that some Republican insiders are beginning to suggest that a brokered convention at San Diego is at least possible, if unlikely.

"Forbes isn't going to win a lot of places, but he's got to win some delegates," said Ben Ginsberg, a former counsel to the Republican National Committee.

About half the delegates to the convention will not be bound to support the candidates under whose banner they were chosen. And, Mr. Ginsberg noted, the party has no mechanism for enforcing those primary decisions.

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