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CAMPAIGN '96 : Buchanan's Louisiana Victory Gives Shot in Arm to Trade Issue

Politics: As attention turns to Iowa, his upset over Gramm points to 'America first' message. Theme goes against grain of GOP economic theory.


CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Fresh from his upset victory in Louisiana, Patrick J. Buchanan returned to the Iowa caucus battleground here Wednesday stressing the themes of economic nationalism and trade protection that he believes were primarily responsible for his triumph Tuesday night.

Exit polls in Louisiana credited conservative Christians and the anti-abortion issue with sparking Buchanan's win, and the former aide to Presidents Nixon and Reagan urged anti-abortion advocates to unite behind his candidacy, "because I'm the one who can win."

But he made it clear that he would rest his hopes for the campaign not so much on questions of morals and values, but on the bread-and-butter "America first" themes that have increasingly come to dominate his campaign rhetoric.

"We intend to accentuate where we differ" from the other candidates, Buchanan said in an interview en route here from his victory party in Baton Rouge. "And where we differ is NAFTA and GATT and these trade deals that we think not only surrender American sovereignty but also sell out the interests of American workers."

Buchanan's pronouncement is reinforced by two television commercials to air soon in Iowa that pledge to undo recent U.S. trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the pact hammered out under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. This pledge confronts established Republican leaders with a potential pincers attack.

One arm of the pincers is being wielded by publishing magnate Steve Forbes, who proposes a flat tax that would radically alter the party's relationship to middle-class voters by revoking mortgage interest deductions and other income tax breaks.

Buchanan brandishes the other arm of the pincers with his denunciation of free trade theories. Ever since the party abandoned protectionism in the wake of the Great Depression, Republican leaders have argued for free trade as essential to the fulfillment of America's manifest economic destiny abroad and the achievement of prosperity at home.

Buchanan is almost gleeful about taking on that long-held belief. "I'm delighted to engage on this issue." Gramm, he noted, made a special point in his grudging concession statement Tuesday in Louisiana of refusing to back away from his positions supporting free trade in general and the recent trade pacts in particular.

"This is what I think and what I believe," Buchanan said about trade. "We've got an explanation for what's happened to the real wages of working Americans and the real income of American families." His rivals, he contended, "do not even address the issue."

"We have ideas and solutions, and they simply call me names," Buchanan said. "So I think we are going to stay with that message and we are going to take it through the next two contests" in Iowa and New Hampshire.

While he yields to no one as a professed advocate of conservative principles, Buchanan's view of conservatism has undergone an interesting evolution in the crucible of the campaign. As he describes it, his understanding of what conservatism means has broadened beyond what others believe and the views he himself once held.

"There is a certain arid conservatism of the textbook, which says this is the abstract formula that works for maximum efficiency and creates prosperity," he said. "[It] is utterly unconcerned about the social and community consequences of the policy it proposes.

"Now these fellows who are for this free trade go-go global economy will not come up close and look and realize that there are trade-offs and tremendous casualties because of these policies.

"They will not address the fact that there are losers and that we have an obligation to speak to these folks who are losers and, second, to address the problem. If middle-class wages are stagnant, then we have a social and economic problem in this country that needs to be addressed."

Asked if he thought he could change the minds of Republicans who have been deeply committed to the free-trade faith, Buchanan shrugged. "This argument is what we have to do to win the nomination. If we win the nomination, they [free-trade Republicans] will stay with me because I'm better than [President] Clinton."

While he took glee at upsetting Gramm's better-financed and better-organized campaign, Buchanan was quick to note that he still faces an uphill fight. "Let me say that Phil Gramm still has a hole card, and that is a tremendous organization in Iowa and solid support in the state."

At the same time, Buchanan contended that the exit-poll data from the Louisiana vote suggested that he would have broader appeal than other conservative candidates in a general election battle against Clinton.

"In Louisiana, we got most of the votes of people below $75,000 income," he said. "Gramm got the rich folks."

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