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CAMPAIGN '96 : Dole, Alexander Prospects Dimming in Arizona

Campaign: They offer reasons to explain why they could lose the primary Tuesday. Buchanan refuses to say he'll back party's eventual nominee.

February 26, 1996|LOUIS SAHAGUN and STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PHOENIX — Republican presidential aspirants Bob Dole and Lamar Alexander, campaigning in Arizona on Sunday, offered preemptive excuses for their possible losses to a surging Patrick J. Buchanan in the state's primary on Tuesday.

Dole attributed his dimming prospects to the press of his business as Senate majority leader, although the chamber has been in recess for three weeks. He was due back in Washington today to meet with congressional leaders before heading back out to campaign in South Carolina, which holds its primary Saturday.

Alexander blamed a shortage of funds and the need to campaign in other states in the South for his near-invisibility in Arizona and in preelection polls here.

"I can't be everywhere," he lamented.

Alexander's chief strategist acknowledged that the former Tennessee governor's candidacy is doomed unless he begins winning some primaries soon.

For the most part, the candidates took it easy Sunday and husbanded their energies and resources for the grueling three-week primary sprint that lies ahead. Although the top contenders spent most of the day in Arizona, which holds a winner-take-all primary with 39 delegates at stake, they were clearly looking ahead to South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary and a succession of decisive multi-contest Tuesdays to follow.

Much of the day's focus was once again on Buchanan, who has set the campaign's tone and agenda since the conservative commentator rocketed to victory in New Hampshire with a mix of social conservatism and economic populism.

For his part, Buchanan on Sunday called on Dole and the other GOP candidates to stop the "name-calling" and "nastiness" directed at him, while pointedly refusing to promise that he would endorse the party's candidate should he not receive the nomination.

On CBS-TV's "Face the Nation," the onetime commentator mocked Dole and Alexander, derisively referring to them by their first names and taunting them to roll up their sleeves and mix it up.

"Come on out, Bob, if you want to fight for the heart and soul of the party. I am here. I am ready to debate you. I believe we are the heart and soul of the party," Buchanan said.

"And when Bob Dole says, 'It's our party,' and Lamar says, 'It's my party'--this is the restrictive covenant attitude of the Beltway Republicans. Let's open this party up," he said.

Multimillionare publisher Steve Forbes, who already has spent $4 million in Arizona--more than the other three top candidates combined--is now hoping to capitalize on his victory in the virtually uncontested Delaware primary on Saturday.

But he also played down expectations of a strong showing in Arizona, saying he hoped only to finish among the top three after having been the prohibitive favorite in the state for weeks.

Forbes' campaign manager, William Dal Col, said the victory in Delaware "has given us a bump--how big of a bump we won't know until Tuesday. But we think the people of Arizona will see that Steve Forbes can win in a state where everyone was on the ballot."

Although all eight remaining GOP candidates were on the Delaware ballot, only Forbes campaigned there. The others stayed away to avoid offending voters in New Hampshire, whose traditional first-in-the-nation primary fell only four days before the Delaware contest.

Dal Col suggested Sunday that Forbes would reassess his campaign if results from upcoming contests were disappointing. But he denied again that the candidate was considering withdrawing from the race.

"The race is still so fluid--there are no front-runners," Forbes said. "Unlike other primary election campaigns, this one is going to go on for a while."

Another campaign aide said top officials were conducting strategy sessions Sunday to determine how much of an effort to put into critical contests, particularly the New York primary on March 7.

Dole, campaigning in Tucson, denied that he was ducking Buchanan and the other candidates by declining to participate in a debate here last Thursday. He noted that he had full-time employment as Senate majority leader--unlike Buchanan, who left his job as a television commentator to wage the campaign.

"I'm not hiding. I'm trying to get around as much as he has. He has nothing else to do. It's a full-time job for him, campaigning, which gives him a little advantage," Dole said.

The Kansas Republican insisted that he remained the front-runner for the nomination, which makes him the "punching bag in all these debates."

"I want to punch somebody else for a while," Dole said, jabbing the air.

Asked whether he would endorse Buchanan if he should win the nomination, Dole mumbled his assent. Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), a Dole supporter on the campaign trail with the candidate, said that "before we start endorsing anybody, he [Buchanan] needs to make it certain he's a Republican."

Later in the day, Dole received the benediction of GOP senior statesman Barry Goldwater during a meeting at Goldwater's Phoenix home.

Dole said the 87-year-old former Arizona senator and 1964 Republican presidential nominee told him in a private session: "You're a fighter. Just keep going. Just keep going."

Buchanan spent the day cultivating two of the most fertile fields of his support--gun enthusiasts and Ross Perot voters.

Wearing a black cowboy hat and black boots, Buchanan stopped at a gun show at the Arizona State Fairgrounds to inspect the merchandise and target some potential voters.

He borrowed a Charles Daly double-barreled shotgun from dealer Gary Bausman to use as a prop for a talk on the sanctity of the 2nd Amendment and a vow to repeal Clinton administration gun-control laws.

"These aren't just for shooting ducks," Buchanan shouted, raising the weapon above his head, as the crowd cheered.

Bausman whispered to reporters as Buchanan courted his comrades, "Don't tell Pat, but that gun was made in Japan."

Times staff writers Sam Fulwood III, Edwin Chen and John M. Broder contributed to this story.

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