A funny thing happened to the “Buchanan Brigades” on their way to Atlanta: They stopped being Minutemen and became Confederates.
Slow to catch fire in the South, Patrick J. Buchanan’s bid to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from George Bush seems to be hitting its stride as the conservative commentator reworks both the issues and the metaphors he uses to convey them to his new audience of Southerners.
When he arrived in Georgia last week, Buchanan was still focused on the economic anxieties that served him so well in New Hampshire, where he evoked images of the Revolutionary War to describe his rebellion against “King George.” But what helped propel him to a surprisingly strong finish in the New Hampshire primary failed to resonate as deeply in the South, where the impact of the recession has been milder. “It didn’t click,” one campaign adviser conceded.
So now, after visits to four other Southern states in the last week, Buchanan is back in Georgia, seeking to exploit more regional forms of conservative dissatisfaction with messages attacking racial quotas, homosexual art and, as he put it in one speech, Republican “Yankee wimps” in Washington.
Typifying his new approach is a TV ad his campaign unveiled Wednesday that features scenes from a PBS documentary in which gay black men are in various stages of undress. The ad blasts Bush for allowing federal funding of the program and other forms “of so-called art.”
Continuing his new focus on social issues, Buchanan called AIDS “nature’s form of retribution” against homosexuals during a radio talk show.
Earlier this week, he paid a highly publicized visit to a family grave site in Mississippi, where a great grandfather who owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy is buried.
Pat Buchanan has discovered his Southern roots, and they are not the same as Alex Haley’s.
“In New Hampshire, the economy was the only thing voters were interested in,” the Buchanan adviser said. “In the South, the quota issue and the emphasis on traditional morality clearly go over better.”
Buchanan’s current strategy is straightforward: He wants the South to rise again by supporting him against Bush in Tuesday’s Georgia primary. And he is hoping a strong showing will serve as a springboard for the Super Tuesday primaries on March 10, when voters in seven Southern or border states go to the polls.
“A lot of voters in other states are going to be looking to Georgia to see how well Buchanan does here. For both Bush and Buchanan, Georgia is the jumping-off point for the South,” said Michael Binford, a Georgia State University political science professor.
Buchanan himself has concluded that Georgia is “the New Hampshire of the South” and holds the key to the rest of his campaign.
Buchanan spokesman Greg Mueller said: “New Hampshire was like a giant wave that got us this far. Now that wave is cresting and we have to find a new one to ride into Super Tuesday. And the place to find it is in Georgia.”
Thus, after padding somewhat aimlessly around the South--the campaign has been in Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana the last week--Buchanan is back in Georgia, devoting all his time and resources to the state between now and Tuesday’s primary.
Can the Buchanan campaign catch the perfect wave in Georgia?
Most experts say a Buchanan victory is doubtful, if only because the Republican Establishment firmly backs Bush and because the working-class vote that Buchanan is trying to attract historically has failed to turn out in large numbers for primaries. Buchanan is hindered from mobilizing that vote by his lack of a strong organizational structure.
But Buchanan is expected to benefit from Georgia election laws that allow voters from any party to vote in the primary of their choice. Thus, middle-class Democrats who are traditionally conservative have the option of supporting Buchanan.
“The crossover vote is the real wild card in Georgia that makes everything hard to predict,” said Michael Giles, an expert on state politics at Atlanta’s Emory University.
Between now and Tuesday, Buchanan plans to crisscross the state on daily bus tours, hammering home his protectionist “America first” theme and attacking what have emerged as his two favorite targets in his Southern campaign: the 1991 Civil Rights Act and the National Endowment for the Arts.
In several speeches, Buchanan has described the civil rights bill that Bush signed last year after protracted negotiations with Congress as an “outrage” that will force businesses to adopt hiring quotas to avoid being sued by minorities alleging racial discrimination. He has been careful to emphasize that he believes blacks and other minorities have the same rights as whites, but he suggests that the federal government now discriminates against whites.
“Reverse discrimination moves America in the wrong direction. We’ve got to get back to the test of excellence and merit. . . . The most qualified man or woman should get the job,” Buchanan says.
The NEA is the target in the Buchanan ad featuring the gay blacks; the documentary that included them was funded by the agency. Referring to that program and other controversial funding decisions by the NEA, the ad says: “The Bush Administration has invested our tax dollars in pornographic and blasphemous art . . . (that) has glorified homosexuals, exploited children and perverted the image of Jesus Christ.”
Bush, who was attending a seven-nation drug summit Thursday in San Antonio, studiously declined comment on the ad, at least for now. “Not today,” Bush said, when asked for a reaction.
White House Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner, during a stop in Chicago, said such commercials “don’t belong in a presidential campaign” and predicted the people of Georgia would reject them.
Buchanan, however, did not hesitate to elaborate on the ad’s theme, saying Thursday that, if elected, he would “shut down, padlock and fumigate” the NEA.
And still another new Buchanan ad criticizes the Administration for a proposal--since abandoned--that would have required churches to divulge to the federal government the names of major donors.
As Buchanan’s campaign turned increasingly aggressive, the honorary chairman of Bush’s Georgia campaign, Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich, predicted that the President’s share of the primary vote would be held to about 65%.
Buchanan has the advantage of being “a protest candidate in the middle of a recession,” Gingrich said in comments to reporters in Washington.
But he expressed skepticism about Buchanan’s ability to appeal to rural Georgia voters. Referring to the conservative commentator’s Washington background, Gingrich said: “Buchanan is Chablis and Mercedes, not Budweiser.”
Times staff writers Douglas Jehl and William J. Eaton contributed to this story.