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CAMPAIGN 2000

Candidate Buchanan Running Lonely Race a Few Laps Behind

Campaign: The Reform Party nominee has only a fraction of the support of even Ralph Nader. He's holding steady in polls at just 1%, but he soldiers on.

November 04, 2000|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — It's 5:30 a.m., and Pat Buchanan is blasting past red lights and over sidewalks in back of a black Lincoln Town Car barreling through deserted downtown Little Rock.

After three interviews at three television stations in 30 minutes, he jets off to a cramped studio in Birmingham, Ark., to record his latest radio ad. He turns to a nearby speaker phone and demands the day's poll results from Bay Buchanan, his sister and confidant.

"You're holding at one," she says. "You're a sleeper, Pat, you're a sleeper."

He lets out a laugh, at once both pained and pleased. "We'll have a whale of a fourth quarter," he says.

Probably not. As opposed to fellow third-party candidate Ralph Nader, Buchanan has simply vanished as a political force in this year's presidential election, stuck at 1% in the national polls.

Even a last-minute blitz of television ads and campaign stops this weekend seems unlikely to win the 5% of the popular vote his Reform Party needs to receive federal election money four years from now.

The poor showing has given the Republicans a distinct edge in the closing days of this election, experts said. As Democrats scramble to discourage liberals from supporting Nader, the GOP has locked down precious percentage points among voters on the right wing of their political spectrum.

Buchanan's conservative appeal simply hasn't been enough to pry Republicans--hungry to regain the White House--from GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush.

"In politics, it's easy to coalesce around a common enemy. For conservatives, that enemy is the Democratic Party and the Clinton-Gore administration," said Bruce Cain, director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies.

Who would have thought that Pat Buchanan--one of the most controversial voices on the American right for more than three decades, a speech writer for Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon--could be so ignored?

Just four years ago, he seriously challenged for the Republican nomination, winning the 1996 New Hampshire primary. Two years ago, he was still on CNN's popular "Crossfire."

And now? He's scrambling for space on local early morning TV news, squeezed between the furniture commercials and live pancake breakfast shots.

"Nobody's taking him seriously," Cain said.

Buchanan, among the savviest of political observers, knows he is an asterisk in the polls, with no chance of winning. But he is also certain his time will come, when his issues--stopping illegal immigration, reducing overseas entanglements and ending free trade--will prevail again.

"We just have to go through our own little Gethsemane," Buchanan said over a quick breakfast Friday in New York City.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The idea a year ago was to eliminate the competition from Reform Party contenders like Donald Trump, take over the party's $12.6 million in federal election funds and storm to a decent showing in the polls.

Message Is Neither Here Nor There

Buchanan attributes his descent into presidential irrelevancy to a variety of reasons: the long, bruising fight for control of the Reform Party, gall bladder operations earlier this year that shut him down for a month and, most damaging, being barred from the national debates.

But many of the same factors affect Nader, who at least is drawing the magic 5% that may hand the Green Party federal election funds in the next presidential election cycle. Buchanan's biggest problem may simply be that his time has passed.

His anti-illegal immigrant, anti-free trade rhetoric doesn't resonate well in a time of economic prosperity, experts say. And his anti-abortion stance, a source of strength in previous elections, failed to convince his supporters to follow him when he left the Republican Party last fall.

"Unless the Republican Party abandons the pro-life agenda, there's no room for a third party on the right," said Terry Jeffrey, Buchanan's campaign manager in 1996 and editor of the conservative Human Events magazine.

Buchanan acknowledges his message is out of step with the times.

"We're warning about what is coming, and the people are reflecting on what is," Buchanan said. "The passion in this race is to get rid of Clinton-Gore. That's what people are more interested in than issues and ideas."

But with tongue in cheek, Buchanan predicts vindication after the "invasion" of illegal immigrants and growing trade deficits bring down the economy.

"People are going to say, 'Who was that guy back then who was talking about this?' And they'll say, 'Buchanan's the guy. Isn't he dead?' "

That sort of fatalism suffuses the campaign, rendering it both comic and desperate. It takes only a few days on the hustings to reveal the incongruity of mixing high name recognition and low poll standing.

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