A day after Patrick J. Buchanan essentially conceded the Republican presidential nomination to incumbent George Bush, relations between the two campaigns remained contentious Wednesday, renewing GOP fears that lasting damage could be done to the President in the not-too-distant fall election.
Defiant still, the Buchanan campaign was smarting over what it sees as efforts by the Bush campaign to pressure the former commentator out of the race with the promise of podium time at the party convention in August.
Buchanan aides said he has not softened his resolve to fight on through several upcoming primaries, most prominently the June 2 California contest.
“Everyone seems to think they know the script,” said Buchanan’s national political director, Paul Erickson, referring to recurrent suggestions that the challenger come into the Bush fold. “What we are trying to get across is that we are changing the script.”
Erickson said Buchanan would demand substantive policy concessions by the President before he could willingly support Bush in the fall.
Although some unaligned conservatives believe that Buchanan will eventually see his way toward backing Bush, one Buchanan colleague suggested that Buchanan will find it in his own interest to fight on long and hard to increase the odds that Bush is defeated in November. The natural progression would leave Buchanan in a powerful position going into 1996.
Within the Buchanan camp, there were overt signs that the sights have shifted to 1996. Buchanan himself has not said whether he plans to run in 1996, but Erickson said the decision will be made by December.
At the White House on Wednesday, Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said it would be “premature” for Bush and his advisers to discuss whether Buchanan should be given a role at the convention.
Although Fitzwater would not discuss any potential olive branches to be directed at Buchanan, a key campaign aide in recent days has suggested that, if Buchanan bows out, he would be ensured a prominent role at the party convention. This year, the convention will serve not only as a forum for Bush, but also as the kickoff for what is expected to be a wild, multi-candidate Republican race in 1996.
“His option is to come on board, join the President,” said Charles Black, a senior Bush campaign aide. “And I hope he addresses the convention; he should address the convention.”
Buchanan, speaking to reporters as he arrived at Dulles Airport near his Washington home Wednesday, acknowledged that it would take “celestial intervention” for him to win the Republican nomination. He was sharply defeated Tuesday in primaries in Illinois and in Michigan, where he had hoped to ride the rocky economy to success.
But, the challenger said pointedly, Bush is “going to need my help.”
“That’s why I think they’ll treat us real sweet,” he said, smiling.
Aides and Buchanan acquaintances said that, while Buchanan plans to spend the next few days deciding where to continue his challenge against Bush, he also will be considering his general election strategy.
And the moves he makes are likely to be heavily dependent on his plans for 1996.
Prominent conservative activist Paul Weyrich said he firmly believes that Buchanan will eventually back Bush but will make only the show of support that is necessary to avoid blame should the Republicans lose the general election.
If Bush were defeated, Weyrich notes, several potential 1996 candidates would lose their political footing--including Vice President Dan Quayle, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp.
Bush aides, mindful that the President will need Buchanan’s conservatives in what is projected to be a tight general election contest, are under pressure to court the upstart challenger before the convention.
But, Erickson said, Buchanan wants more than a high-profile convention plum. What he has in mind is closer to a public mea culpa by the President.
The President has to admit that the tax hike deal he struck with Congress was a mistake not because of its political ramifications--as Bush confessed two weeks ago--but because it violated Republican economic principles, Erickson said. He has to renounce government regulations and enforce a tough trade policy--in short, adopt the Buchanan campaign’s themes.
Times staff writer Douglas Jehl in Washington contributed to this story.