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The Big Crackup : After New Hampshire, the GOP seems to be heading in many different directions. Will any of them lead to the White House?

February 25, 1996|KEVIN PHILLIPS | Kevin Phillips, publisher of American Political Report, is author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His new book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustrations of American Politics" (Little Brown)

WASHINGTON — The Republican presidential race has become a horror movie. Bob Dole has not simply lost his third consecutive New Hampshire primary in 16 years. Losing this time to Patrick J. Buchanan must have convinced the GOP Senate leader that his chances of reaching the White House are minimal. London and Las Vegas oddsmakers certainly agree.

Moreover, Dole immediately targeted populist fire-eater Buchanan as a fear-mongering extremist. Buchanan says it's "castle" conservatives versus "pitchfork" populists. The Republican Party is on the verge of imitating the former Yugoslavia.

The second part of what's turning Republican national headquarters into a haunted house is that, during the last 50 years, New Hampshire has been a critical pulse meter. No GOP presidential nominee has won the White House in November if he didn't first win the New Hampshire primary. No one. Credit these precedents and, for the GOP, if Buchanan isn't a winner, no other Republican is, either. Bill Clinton must have celebrated Tuesday night with an extra bag of cheeseburgers.

Another ingredient of establishment conservatism's back-to-the-crypt nervousness is that the so-called "Newt Gingrich revolution"--fantasized by the GOP in the winter of 1994-95, now wounded in the polls--appears to have taken a couple of additional silver bullets in the party's own presidential contests in Louisiana, Iowa and New Hampshire. The "contract with America"--the 10-part dream sheet put together by Washington's GOP congressional leaders, along with business, financial and balanced-budget lobbies--has drawn obituaries with New Hampshire datelines.

New Hampshire-winner Buchanan, in fact, criticized, rather than applauded, corporate America. He even attacked budget-balancers for cutting Medicare while earmarking $50 billion to bail out Wall Street and the Mexican peso. This new "revolution," if it lasts, appears to be the antithesis of what the congressional GOP is trying to pull off. The potential for Balkanization is brutal.

The nomination odds are strongly against Buchanan, of course. The Republican establishment loathes his economic populism--his Fortune 500-bashing, Wall Street-baiting and attacks on New York banks--much more than they worry about his views on abortion and cultural warfare. However, it will emphasize the latter, because this is where Buchanan, like similar right-wing populists here and in Europe, has flirted most with extremism. Over the next few weeks, GOP centrists can be expected to accuse him of everything from racism to secretly favoring Saddam Hussein. So bombarded, Buchanan will have trouble exceeding 30%-35% of the vote in March's upcoming wave of major Republican primaries.

However, Dole's own weakness has also been building. Three land mines have long been visible on the road to his nomination. Congressional leaders of either party have no record of winning party presidential nominations; Dole will be 73, a record, before the January inauguration, and the Kansas senator has been running for national office since 1976, which adds to the public's perception of his staleness. This negative convergence intensified in recent months, when Dole bungled his harsh reply to Clinton's State of the Union address and when, last week, he stunned pundits by saying he'd been surprised by the emergence of the trade issue in New Hampshire. Debate-ducking has also become standard Dole operating procedure.

Ex-Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, the third-place finisher in Iowa and New Hampshire, has smoked out this weakness. He's saying, in a nutshell, that Dole no longer has ideas or prospects, and that the GOP Senate leader should fade away so Buchanan and Alexander can go head-to-head.

Dole's February ineptitude and his idea gap may reinforce this point, but Alexander's actual campaign circumstances pose a major reality check. The Tennessean doesn't have much money, he doesn't even have delegates on the ballot in states like New York and Pennsylvania, and not a few media people regard him as just another aw-shucks Southern governor who does investment deals in tandem with his wife and has minimal commitment to anything beyond his own career. Dole understandably feels that he hasn't spent 20 years near the top of American politics to get out of the way for an empty red-flannel shirt.

Even so, Alexander's own ambition should keep him active, even brutal, because the stakes are so high. By staying in the race and dividing the anti-Buchanan vote, Alexander could help assure the primary defeats and consequent embarrassments that would make Dole look just as ineffective as Alexander's TV commercials will, with feigned reluctance, insist upon. It is conceivable that several more bad Dole defeats could increase the pressure on the Senate GOP leader to step down.

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