Buchanan Won't Go Gently Into The Political Night

His crusade could bedevil the Republicans into November

Pat Buchanan's populist bandwagon seems to have skidded off the campaign trail well shy of the August Republican convention. Ambushed in Arizona and crushed in South Carolina, Buchanan was shut out by Bob Dole in contests on Mar. 5 from New England to Georgia. With the field dwindling and Buchanan unlikely to find Southern comfort in the Mar. 12 Super Tuesday primaries, Dole now seems headed for the GOP nomination.

Still, this is no time for the senator from Kansas to relax. Steve Forbes, whose lagging campaign won a Mar. 6 endorsement from former Bush Cabinet member and Representative Jack F. Kemp, will continue to push his supply-side agenda, including a flat tax. Buchanan, though battered, shows no signs of going quietly either. His crusade to steer the GOP toward economic nationalism and hard-line opposition to abortion could bedevil the party all the way to the November general election.

Buchanan has also threatened to bolt the GOP for an independent run if it selects an abortion-rights backer for Vice-President. For Republicans, such a threat is cause for deep concern. "If Buchanan does that, he would get enough votes to destroy the Republicans' chances" against Clinton, says Cornell University political scientist Theodore J. Lowi.

The effects of a conservative third party could be far-reaching. Buchanan's fiercely independent coalition of social conservatives, blue-collar populists, and Perotista reformers could form the core of a potent "third force" that lures anxious workers and struggling entrepreneurs away from the Republican party. "There is a potential realignment of American politics that would unite [white-collar] employees of Corporate America, small and midsize businessmen, and blue-collar workers," says Kevin L. Kearns, president of the U.S. Business & Industrial Council.

Even if Buchanan remains a Republican, his movement is giving renewed momentum to fellow populist Ross Perot. The Texas billionaire is busily getting his Reform Party on state ballots, and he hasn't shut the door on a second race for President. Either candidate would find a sizable pool of receptive voters: A Feb. 22-29 Harris Poll of 1,005 adults found that 18% of voters say they won't supprt either Dole or President Clinton.

Before they worry about third parties, though, GOP pros must first contain the internal damage inflicted on the presumptive nominee, whom Buchanan derides as "Beltway Bob, bellhop of the Business Roundtable." Buchanan issues such as the problems of blue-collar workers and protectionism make Establishment Republicans extremely uncomfortable, says Kearns. "They may pay some lip service to the plight of these voters. But with the big corporations footing the bill, their economic policies prevent them from doing anything about it."

DOLE'S DILEMMA. Dole strategists are trying to find ways to appropriate Buchanan's appeal to economic angst without embracing his protectionism or business-bashing rhetoric. Among the ideas: stressing how a Dole tax cut would provide more cash for middle-class voters and linking government regulation to job cuts. To lure Forbes voters, Dole has been talking more about some sort of flat tax and the stimulative effect of tax cuts on the economy.

Still, even if Dole can quell Buchananites' economic anxieties, he faces potentially wrenching problems on the issue of abortion. In addition to an anti-choice Vice-President, Buchanan is demanding that the party resist any weakening of its abortion platform. Dole can't afford to alienate vehement abortion opponents--but if he appears to be capitulating to Buchanan, he could drive away pro-choice moderates.

Republican leaders still hope Buchanan will fall back into line. His brigades might not follow his orders, though. "Even if Pat stays within the Republican Party, you have this disenfranchised bloc of voters that's wandering around the desert seeking the promised land," says David Rucker of Associated Conservatives of Texas, a group of hard-line activists. "They remember the vicious personal attacks on Pat Buchanan, and they're not a sure bet to go to Bob Dole."

It will take all of Dole's vaunted dealmaking skills to entice the Buchananites. But he has little choice. Unless he manages to bring most of Pat's pals into the GOP big tent, his string of March victories could be small consolation in November.

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