Bashing Big Business On The Campaign Trail

Corporate America is at the center of a split within the GOP

Ostensibly, the Republican candidates' slog through New Hampshire's snowdrifts is about the business of picking a Presidential nominee. But increasingly, the GOP's arduous nominating process--which kicked into high gear with the Feb. 12 Iowa caucuses--has evolved into a bitter struggle over the future direction of the Republican party itself.

On one side: an entrenched old guard with strong ties to Corporate America and pragmatic GOP elected officials. On the other: fiery populists who combine unyielding social conservatism with an economic nationalism that savages Wall Street and Washington alike. Their champion, riding the crest of a second-place finish in Iowa, is conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, a well-heeled working-class hero with a penchant for bashing "the big boys in New York" who "don't give a hoot what the common people want." Also exploiting the anti-Establishment tide are two self-styled Washington outsiders, former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander and magazine publisher Steve Forbes.

At the moment, though, it's Buchanan who is surging. His low-budget, fiercely ideological campaign has ignited a grassroots insurgency that is weakening Establishment pillar Bob Dole's grip on the nomination. If there was any doubt about how big the chasm has grown, Iowa's caucuses told the tale. Dole eked out only a 26% victory, compared with the 38% of the vote he managed to pull in 1988. In a contest polarized along economic lines, Dole was favored by the wealthiest voters, while Buchanan led 29% to 24% among those earning less than $30,000 a year. And Buchanan's support from religious conservatives pushed him to within three percentage points of Dole, a showing he spun into the moral equivalent of victory.

As a result of Buchanan's right uppercut, Dole's dreams of a quick victory are fading. He may have to endure a lengthy state-by-state battle for delegates--the kind of grinding war of attrition that has President Clinton's advisers feeling smug. "It's fascinating to watch the Republicans disemboweling themselves," grins Senator Christopher J. Dodd (D.-Conn.), general chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

The smiles don't stretch to America's corporate suites, however. Big Business has bet heavily on Dole. "Buchanan's views are worrisome," says Bruce D. Cowen, president of TRC Cos., a maker of environmental equipment based in Windsor, Conn. "Without free trade, our economy will hit a wall." GOP heavyweight Richard B. Cheney, now chairman of Dallas-based Halliburton Co., says Buchanan's doctrine is a form of latter-day "Know-Nothingism" and charges that his conspiratorial isolationism "appeals to the worst instincts in our society."

BIG NEGATIVE. Dole, his party's Great Compromiser, is viewed with suspicion by his rivals in the race and also by hardline GOP freshmen. Still, he remains the overwhelming choice of executives, who value his skills as one of the capital's supreme legislative tacticians. Trouble is, Dole's mastery of a Washington system that many voters see as hopelessly corrupt has become one of his biggest negatives, ranking alongside his muddled message.

What's particularly worrisome for many members of the boardroom set, though, is Buchanan's skillful manipulation of populist resentment. With his scathing attacks on corpocrats who "export American jobs abroad" and sign insidious free-trade pacts with shadowy foreign elites, Buchanan's America Firstism has sent a chill through U.S. multinationals. Globally-minded execs view the type of protectionism espoused by Buchanan as a dangerous form of nostalgic yearning at best--and nativist rabble-rousing at worst. "This nation cannot return to isolationism," says Stanley C. Gault, chairman of Goodyear Tire & RubberCo. "In doing so, we would allow the rest of the world to pass us by."

Gault expects protectionist arguments to fall of their own weight. But Buchanan will get the chance to send more shivers down other CEOs' spines now that he is focused on New Hampshire and beyond. Although he lacks Forbes's megabucks and Dole's links to popular New Hampshire Governor Steve Merrill, Buchanan has always been popular with the state's gun owners and antitax activists. Buchanan also is backed by the influential Manchester Union Leader, a beacon of right-wing opinion. These assets clearly worry moderate business leaders. "Buchanan is in tune with the far right," frets Fred Bramante, CEO of Daddy's Junky Music Stores, a New England-based music retailer. "It will be a Clinton landslide if he's the nominee."

Fortunately for Dole, the Anyone-But-Bob vote is still split. Alexander placed third in Iowa and won a shot at becoming a real contender. Forbes is hoping that a boundless checkbook and fervently antitax Granite Staters will help him overcome his Iowa meltdown. His capitalist tools of choice: a 17% flat-tax proposal and an unlimited media budget to beam his "hope, growth, and opportunity" gospel to voters. Meanwhile, Buchanan is angling for March breakthroughs in Southern states with pronounced populist or fundamentalist leanings.

To repel the populist revolt, Dole is counting on GOP elected officials. Some 24 of the nation's 31 Republican governors have endorsed him, along with many top state legislators. The payoff, Dole reckons, will come in New York, the Midwest, and California. In the end, he's betting that rank-and-file Republicans won't be able to stomach the fiery Buchanan.

MORE CRITICS. He may be right. Polls show that Buchanan, even as he surges, has more critics within his party than admirers. Any Dole collapse, veteran pols believe, would be likely to drive voters toward the less polarizing Alexander. Even if Buchanan falls short, however, the anti-Washington, anti-Wall Street current he is riding could alter the Republican political landscape for years to come.

Somewhere along the line, Republicans will come together long enough to pick a standard-bearer. But with the party torn by dissent and facing both a bitter nominating struggle and a convention confrontation between its feuding factions, some GOP elders are beginning to wonder whether the nomination fight will position the party for national dominance--or give Bill Clinton another ticket to the White House.

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