Unrest on the far right

July 14, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

STOP THE presses! Republican Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire is quitting the race for the GOP presidential nomination to run as the candidate of the U.S. Constitution Party, the New Hampshire affiliate of the U.S. Taxpayers Party. This is like a bench-warming utility infielder leaving the New York Yankees to play shortstop for Altoona in the Eastern League.

Mr. Smith, a right-wing extremist who won only 49 percent of the vote in barely getting re-elected in 1996, had about as much chance as Monica Lewinsky of winning the GOP presidential primary in his own state, let alone the party nomination. The most recent polls in New Hampshire had him an almost indiscernible blip.

The U.S. Taxpayers Party is slated to change its name to the U.S. Constitution Party at a convention in St. Louis over Labor Day weekend. The party's 1992 and 1996 standard-bearer, Howard Phillips, who is stepping aside for Mr. Smith, says the party will be on the ballot in all 50 states in 2000, compared with ballot position in 39 in the last presidential election.

Mr. Smith's departure from Republican ranks serves chiefly to underscore the ideological discontent in a party that seems determined to nominate self-styled "compassionate conservative" Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

To Mr. Smith and others of the discontented, that phrase smacks of softness toward rock-ribbed conservative principles, a softness they contend will bring the party another presidential defeat in 2000 -- despite early polls showing Mr. Bush running well ahead of Vice President Al Gore, prematurely anointed by much of the political community to be the Democratic nominee.

Instead of treating the Smith defection like the gnat-nip that it is, Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson foolishly has made a federal case of it, writing Mr. Smith not to "confuse the success of our shared message with your failure as its messenger." At the same time, Senate leaders are poised to punish Mr. Smith by taking away a committee chairmanship and demanding return of party funds that helped him keep his Senate seat in 1996.

Another presidential candidate of the Republican right, commentator Pat Buchanan, has blasted Mr. Nicholson's letter to Mr. Smith as "rude and insulting and ultimately very stupid," and has declined to rule out the possibility that he too might bolt and run as a third-party candidate. Mr. Buchanan won the New Hampshire primary in 1996 but faded thereafter and he is not expected to run a competitive race this time.

"I think the Republican establishment has made up its mind that what I did in '96 will never be allowed to be repeated, where I almost broke through and took the nomination," he said Sunday on CBS News' "Face the Nation." "And if they slam those doors shut, well, we'll just have to look for another way." That sounded as if he were at least considering a defection of his own, possibly to the Reform Party, which probably will field a candidate other than Ross Perot.

Still another candidate of the Republican right, former Christian political leader Gary Bauer, also chastised Mr. Nicholson, saying Mr. Smith "is concerned by the retreat of our party's leadership on matters of fundamental principle." But Mr. Bauer says he has "absolutely no intention of leaving the Republican Party."

Even more foolishly, the party chairmen in Iowa and New Hampshire, sites of the two most important early delegate-selection contests next February, have called for all Republican candidates to sign a loyalty pledge saying they will support the eventual nominee. Mr. Buchanan blasted that idea, too, charging that "the Republican establishment is doing its best right now to almost force a fracture in the GOP" with such a pledge.

All this does nothing to shake the growing sense that Mr. Bush is headed toward easy nomination. But if he makes it, a fractured party could spell trouble for him in the general election next year.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 7/14/99

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