PLANO, Texas — Sitting with the lunch crowd at the Rice Farm Chinese Restaurant here, two burly middle-aged men named Smith leaned over plates of chicken with broccoli to talk about God and guns and government--and Patrick J. Buchanan.
"I've been a rebel all my life," said Raymond Smith, head of the 1st Texas Rangers Militia and a board member of the nationwide Tri-States Militia.
"Most of us have all been rebels for some reason or another," said Russell Smith, head of the Texas Constitutional Militia.
Already angered by the blood spilled at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and down the highway from here at Waco, the growing ranks of unofficial militias now are rallying around another American threshold. This time it is in the political arena. For the first time in many years, these members of the nation's radical right believe they have a candidate for president.
"A majority of the people within our organizations are for Pat," said Russell Smith. "My wife and I are working hard for him. We're educating people, talking to people, passing out fliers. Any place we see people, any place we strike up a conversation. At gun rallies. At gun shows. And we're getting a pretty good reception."
On almost every issue--free trade, immigration, abortion, gun control--the militias and the hard-right are finding themselves comrades with Buchanan. At gun shows and conventions and other gathering places for militia supporters, "Go, Pat, Go" is in the air.
How much help the support of militia members might be for Buchanan remains unclear. No one really knows how many people belong to the nation's network of militia organizations, let alone how many might be registered to vote. For the candidate, the groundswell of support from militias and other radical groups of the right is at best a double-edged sword.
Already, two Buchanan campaign aides--one in his national headquarters and the other in Florida--have had to step aside after accusations about their alleged ties to white supremacists. And Buchanan and his aides know that too close an identification with militias and their members could fatally taint him in the eyes of more moderate voters.
As a result, campaign officials studiously avoid questions about Buchanan's support among militia organizations. Repeated requests this week to Buchanan's national campaign headquarters for clarification of his position toward militia groups went unanswered. "I cannot comment on the record about this," said Kevin B. Forbes, a chief Buchanan spokesman, when he was asked for comment on the issue.
Of course, being the recipient of support from militia members does not make Buchanan a militia supporter himself. Still less does it mean that Buchanan necessarily supports the oftentimes racist philosophy espoused by many in the loosely knit militia movement.
"Guilt by association is not an appropriate standard by which to judge a public figure," said Chip Berlet, a senior analyst for Political Research Associates, a think tank in the Boston area.
"Yet there are serious questions about whether or not some aspects of Pat Buchanan's philosophy can be seen as promoting racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia, even when he and his campaign aides are generally willing to condemn these phenomena."
Leonard Zeskind, an expert on tracking extremist groups who is now writing a book on the U.S. militia movement, said that Buchanan is "sounding all their issues."
"My sense is that the country has developed a hard-core right-wing populace that's sitting waiting to be plucked," he said. The militia movement is one manifestation of that hard core, Zeskind said. "And when somebody comes along and can gel them, well, that's what Buchanan's doing. He's the one guy who speaks to this broad right-wing constituency."
So far, Buchanan has largely been able to enjoy the luxury of having things both ways. He has denounced racism, but has carefully steered away from specific comment on the militia movement. This allows him to distance himself from the groups and their controversial mixture of conspiracy theories and white supremacy while still profiting from their support.
But while Buchanan has tried to remain silent, militia members themselves have been quite vocal in expressing their feelings.
"Pat's general platform is absolutely verbatim with those things that we've been talking about," said Bob Fletcher, a former Montana Militia leader who is preparing to set up a radio and television program in West Los Angeles.
In particular, militia members say they admire Buchanan for his opposition to abortion and all forms of gun control, his denunciations of racial quotas and federal mandates, and his advocacy of stopping illegal immigration even if it means closing the borders. Above all, they detest the new world order--the umbrella term that members of the radical right, and Buchanan, use to refer to international organizations from the United Nations to the World Trade Organization.