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The Buchanan Dilemma

Campaign Roadmap: A continuing series of articles analyzing the '96 presidential campaign.

February 25, 1996|ROBERT G. BECKEL | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

WASHINGTON — Patrick J. Buchanan appeared on CBS' "This Morning" last Tuesday, primary day in New Hampshire. I was also on the show--in my capacity as a political analyst for CBS. As my old "Crossfire" partner was leaving, he asked what I was going to predict on the air. I said I was going to predict Buchanan. He asked what I thought would happen if he won that day, and I answered, "All hell is going to break loose." He laughed, but he knew it, too.

Neither of us could have predicted just how much hell. Buchanan was mercilessly bludgeoned all last week by the Republican establishment and their "amen corner" on Wall Street. As the political dinosaurs they are, they are playing right into Buchanan's hands.

Step back to the Larry Pratt issue. Pratt, the right-wing gun lover who was Buchanan's co-chair, was accused of attending several white supremacists' meetings. Buchanan defended him, and the Republican establishment and the press wailed. I was in Northern New Hampshire as this was breaking, talking to a middle-class, white-collar Buchanan coordinator. Know what his reaction was to the outcry? "Just a conspiracy by the establishment and the liberal press to discredit Pat. Won't work," he predicted. "It just gets us that much madder."

For the Buchanan campaign, what was seen as their greatest threat--the establishment barrage--gives Buchanan a potent rallying cry. Coming Republican primaries are littered with voters who will vote for Buchanan just because the establishment doesn't like him. Barring a serious disclosure or scandal, the Buchanan message is being enhanced for him by those who like him least. Go figure.

But even though Buchanan's base gets energized by the establishment's attacks, it does not mean that Buchanan can avoid answering the questions. Already this week, we have watched him being forced to respond to questions about coddling Nazis and extolling the virtues of dictators. His responses, so far, have been adequate, which is to say, barely passable in this business. He claims that most of the controversial quotes are taken from his old columns or TV interviews and are often taken out of context. That is OK, but, in time, the sheer weight of the attacks can take their toll. Buchanan might want to consider a little mea culpa for some past comments, citing the right of us all to grow, and still remain the anti-establishment candidate.

But just being the anti-establishment candidate is not enough for Buchanan. He needs the field to remain crowded--at least through March. For now, he could ask for no better opposition than Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander. They draw from the same pool of moderate and establishment Republican voters, and both insist they are the only alternative to Buchanan.

Problem is, no one is buying either line yet. It will take several weeks for the voters to pick an alternative to Buchanan. If that means through March, Buchanan will already have won.

The Republicans will pick 65% of their delegates by the end of March. If Buchanan, Dole and Alexander (and maybe Steve Forbes) split the vote, the all-important delegate count at the beginning of April could look something like this: Buchanan, 28%; Dole, 27%; Alexander, 25%, and others, 20%.

With only 35% of delegates left to choose, it could be virtually impossible for any candidate to put together 51% without a deal. Or maybe, just maybe, a brokered convention.

A deal is more probable at the moment. The latest deal rumor among the dinosaur Republicans is that Dole and Alexander form a ticket, combine delegates and block Buchanan. Sounds cute--too cute. If the dinosaurs missed the New Hampshire response among Buchanan voters to Pratt, they won't miss the uproar from the Buchanan base over such a deal. It will guarantee them, at best, an ugly convention in San Diego, and, at worst, could push Buchanan to a third-party run.

As for Buchanan, who really thinks he will get the nomination, a time of reckoning will soon be upon him. When he realizes he can't get a majority of delegates, he will have to decide on a course of action. He will probably begin by warning the party against any deal like that outlined above. That should buy him some time.

But time for what? Herewith, the problems for the Republicans: If Buchanan is denied the nomination by a deal and is not put on the ticket--which he would surely take but never be offered--what can he get to satisfy himself and his base? From this Republican Party, it is hard to imagine what he could get. They will never buy his message, since it runs exactly counter to the mortgage holders of the GOP--Wall Street. He won't be on the ticket--too extreme, say the dinosaurs. A Cabinet spot? He would laugh. A prime-time speech? He has already earned that.

So what, then? What will or can they give him? The guess here is nothing. What then? Who knows, but this is a weird year on the political stage, and we have hardly seen the first act. There is only one certainty: For Bill Clinton, happy days are here again.

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