Buchanan's punch hooks from the right S. Carolina primary tests hopefuls today

Campaign 1996

March 02, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The presidential candidate with the wrinkled suit but the crisp fighting words has his audience right in the palm of his large protectionist hand.

"Never let 'em take that flag down!" Patrick J. Buchanan roars to a crowd of Christian conservatives here in Dixie territory, where the Confederate flag flies atop the state Capitol.

There are frenzied cheers of "Go Pat Go." For about the 10th time in five minutes, men and women on their feet, waving signs.

As the Republican race clunks along, from Lamar Alexander's piano ditties to Bob Dole's sepia-toned pleadings for "one last mission" to Steve Forbes' robotic tax prescriptions, there is one surge of electricity on the trail: the blustery, brawling Buchanan brigade.

The former TV commentator, whose fate will be nudged either forward or back by today's crucial primary here, is feeding juicy cuts of filet mignon to starving crowds, serving up one hot-button conservative issue after another to eager, at times rabid, audiences.

Mr. Buchanan, who makes a stop in Baltimore today in advance of Tuesday's Maryland primary, said today's vote in South Carolina was "pivotal" for him, the "key to the kingdom."

Indeed, if he wins in South Carolina, considered a bellwether for the string of Southern primaries, his insurgent campaign of "conservatism of the heart" could fall into place. And Mr. Dole, who is expected to win, would be seriously wounded.

"We'll go through the South like a house afire," Mr. Buchanan said yesterday, speaking to cadets at the Citadel in Charleston.

A Buchanan loss, on the other hand, could halt his momentum and put Mr. Dole's heretofore lackluster campaign back on a track to the GOP presidential nomination.

With the front-runner status up for grabs, polls this week have shown Mr. Buchanan trailing Mr. Dole by 11 percentage points.

At a Christian Coalition forum Thursday night, Mr. Buchanan even seemed to be preparing for the possibility he might not win the nomination. He told the crowd it should demand that all the Republican candidates commit to a "pro-life" running mate, as he has, and he declared victory for what he has already brought to the debate on the abortion issue.

"I believe we've won the battle," the Washington pundit and former Nixon speechwriter said. "The right-to-life plank stays in the Republican platform."

But if Mr. Buchanan's rallies are any barometer, the warrior -- who loses his CNN enunciation amid the folksy crowds, crowing about how he's "makin' 'em" quake in their boots "up 'ere" in Washington -- is still on a roll.

Hitting every conservative target, from "Bill and Hillary" to

abortion -- with the Education Department, the United Nations, federally funded arts, immigration and a vague amalgam of establishment forces he calls the "New World Order" packed in -- he brings his audiences to a boil.

As the candidate spoke at a prayer service Wednesday night, Laquita Stricker, a 47-year-old artist who said she never used to care much about politics, sprang from her seat at the Evangel Cathedral in Spartanburg almost every other minute, shouting "Go Pat, Go!" with her fists in the air.

At a rally in Nashua, N.H., a man yelled "Talk about the workers, Pat!" like a fan shouting out his favorite song at a rock concert.

His fervent followers -- who turn his rallies into interactive experiences -- are a mix of cultural conservatives and working-class voters anxious about jobs and wages. Although many call themselves ardent conservatives, they insist they are part of the Republican mainstream.

Although Mr. Buchanan is attracting some blue-collar Democrats with his opposition to free trade, rarely does one find a Buchanan supporter who is not firmly anti-abortion.

In fact, he generally begins his stump speech with abortion, vowing to choose Supreme Court justices who will overturn "the abomination called Roe vs. Wade" and promising to be "the most pro-life president in the history of the United States, bar none."

Lacing his economic populism with cultural themes, he says, "We believe one bread-winner in a family should be able to support the entire family."

But all that serves as a mere appetizer to the main course -- his incendiary attacks on the Washington establishment and, especially, free-trade agreements such the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) that, Mr. Buchanan charges, are selling out the jobs of American workers.

"What are we doin'?" he bellows like an impassioned preacher. "What are we doin' surrendering the sovereignty of the United States for some ridiculous GATT trade deal to some bureaucrats in the Third World? The Founding Fathers would never have put up with it The Founding Fathers would have responded with three little words -- lock and load."

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