'Bad dog' Buchanan grows more fierce, more defiant Lacking delegates, Republican still seeks major convention role

March 09, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- With his dream of a presidential nomination dimming with each passing primary, Patrick J. Buchanan is slipping easily, even gleefully, back to his role as the bad boy -- or "bad dog," as he puts it -- of the Republican Party.

"The bad dog is right here!" he yelped at a rally here Thursday, stirring an auditorium of supporters sporting white plastic foam

bowlers with Buchanan stickers.

If the candidate ever had his own internal V-chip, it has been shed along with his suit jacket. Now it is pure pitchfork-wielding time as the former TV commentator skewers Bob Dole, refusing to rally behind the presumptive nominee and leaving his plans one big threatening question mark for the party.

Amazingly, Mr. Buchanan's ferocious bark seems to be growing fiercer, more defiant, his audiences rowdier. "Don't quit, Pat," they yell. "Don't give in."

At a Christian academy in Knoxville this week, a seminary stu- dent blurted out: "Don't support the nominee! Don't support him, Pat. The Republican Party left us. We're not going back."

Mr. Buchanan, standing before the school's "Home of the Warriors" slogan emblazoned on the wall, didn't miss a beat. "Here's what we do," he told about 700 students and parents. "We go to San Diego. We break the doors open to this party, and we TAKE IT OVER!"

And so it went as the Buchanan brigade stormed the fog-crowned hills of Tennessee this week in search of Super Tuesday votes. At the Casey Jones Village in Jackson, he stood on a tree stump wearing a locomotive cap and railed against gun control. Supporters held aloft a Confederate flag and called out: "You the man! You the man!" At each stop, he vowed to press his fight all the way to the Republican National Convention in San Diego and showed no signs of falling in line behind Mr. Dole.

"We're not negotiating with anybody," Mr. Buchanan said in an interview aboard his bus, where the Oak Ridge Boys' "My Baby is American Made" poured from loudspeakers.

If anything, the sparring with Mr. Dole has escalated. The Senate majority leader, responding to Mr. Buchanan's coup-like threat to "break the doors open" at this summer's convention, accused the Washington pundit of encouraging a split in the party that could pave the way for President Clinton's re-election.

"If he wants Bill Clinton for four more years, he can have him," Mr. Dole said. "That's not the way we built our party. That's the way we tear it down."

'I don't need lectures'

Mr. Buchanan shot back: "I don't need lectures from Senator Dole about what it means to be a loyal Republican. I've supported every Republican presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater."

He has, Mr. Buchanan concedes, almost no chance of winning the nomination. But he also knows that the more delegates he gathers in primaries, the greater his muscle at the convention.

For now, he says, his strategy is to campaign hard in Texas, the most delegate-rich of the states with primaries Tuesday, and then swoop down on Michigan and other industrialized Midwest states, where his "America First" economic message to anxious working-class voters might resonate.

A convention player

He says he is hoping "for some break," perhaps in Pennsylvania next month. But even without a primary victory, he says, he is confident he will be a player at the convention.

"We went to Houston," he says of the 1992 Republican convention, where he supported George Bush (after having challenged him during the primaries) and delivered a speech that was criticized by many Republicans as harshly divisive. "We wrote half that platform."

Aside from keeping the right-to-life anti-abortion plank in the platform to heed the "silent screams of the unborn," Mr. Buchanan said, he will try to influence the party's position on everything from foreign aid and World Bank loans to illegal immigrants.

"I don't see anywhere where I can't win," he said. "Even on trade, I'll bet you I can get the Republican convention to say that these [free-trade] deals have really proven not to have been as beneficial as we had hoped."

Though he keeps hinting that his feverish supporters might walk out on the party and support a third-party challenge, he says he isn't pushing them to do so. Still, he refuses to pledge to support Mr. Dole if the Kansas senator is nominated. And some establishment Republicans fear that Mr. Buchanan could join forces with Ross Perot's Reform Party.

Asked if he can envision himself campaigning for Mr. Dole, he extends his hand and says, "Take it easy" to signal the end of the interview, and laughs heartily.

'There will be hell to pay'

Some of his supporters, though, seem ready to revolt.

"If I have to, I will split from the Republican Party," said Ann Bright, a retired nurse and former Perot voter who attended a Buchanan rally in Florida this week. "The Republican Party has slandered this man. There will be hell to pay come election time."

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