Buchanan Poised at the Edge of Political Credibility Gap : Campaign: No matter what polls and receptive New Hampshire voters say, GOP pols insist he's not electable.


The problem for Patrick J. Buchanan, the silver-tongued Republican who would be President, is people like George Anthes.

"It seems that Pat Buchanan has truly caught fire," says Anthes, the king of talk radio at station WMVU, introducing the candidate to a listening audience of flinty New Englanders. "There seems to be a change brewing."

And so Buchanan begins his spiel: The national polls--three of five in August--that peg him No. 2 behind Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas in the race for the GOP nomination. His recent endorsement by the Manchester Union Leader, the paper of record for New Hampshire's hard-core conservatives. A credible showing in the recent Iowa straw poll--in his eyes, No. 3 with a bullet.

"We have crossed the threshold," said a confident Buchanan, "of credibility and electability."

Not so fast. Thirty minutes later, with the microphone off and the candidate heading quickly for the door, Anthes gets a little more honest. "I'd love to see Pat as President, but I have my doubts." A pause. "He is picking up though."

Well, sort of. Somehow, even when they suffer setbacks or fail to make headway in the polls, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, ex-Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and California Gov. Pete Wilson get taken seriously as potential nominees. Even when Buchanan is on a roll--like the one that fuels his hopes today--he is rarely accorded the same respect.

The reasons are plentiful. Buchanan rose to prominence as a commentator and author; although he ran for President in 1992, he has never won an elected office. He is an unabashed, uncompromising conservative, and thus a polarizing figure to many. And the disdain he does not hide for some in his own party has cut into his ability to raise money.

Buchanan and his followers are "outsiders, they're populists," said political analyst Kevin Phillips. "In terms of the Republican power elite, they're not Buchananites. He could never be the nominee."

Striving for Second

Buchanan, 56, is undeterred by such naysayers. And his quest, at least for now, is not to be No. 1, but to come in second in the early primaries and caucuses of 1996--a crucial three weeks, Buchanan contends, that will decide if he can raise the money to continue campaigning.

"I've got the resources to go three weeks," said the candidate, who so far has raised about $3 million and spent an estimated $2.5 million. A bad showing in those crucial contests and contributions will dry up, leaving him at great disadvantage to his cushier competitors who have the money "to sustain the kinds of defeats I can't."

Indeed, as of June 30, in the most recent Federal Election Commission statistics available, Dole had raised $13.5 million and had $6.5 million cash on hand; Gramm had raised $16.8 million and had $7.3 million left.

Dole's and Gramm's years in public office have given them extensive lists of big-money campaign donors. Buchanan, on the other hand, appeals to ideologically inspired small donors and reports an average contribution of less than $40. "We are appealing to the grass-roots," said K. B. Forbes, Buchanan's deputy press secretary.

Buchanan is struggling mightily to claim the crown of true conservative in a crowded field of candidates, to fuse together the disaffected, the religious, the working class, Ross Perot voters, gun owners, the Christian Coalition. He is striving to be second.

"Dole might be ahead of me," Buchanan contended, "but then the conservatives will say: 'It's Buchanan or Dole.' If they say that, then I can beat Bob Dole."

Hanging over the upbeat campaign for the past month was the ill health of Buchanan's mother, Catherine, 83, who was injured in a fall. She died Monday, and Buchanan headed home from a campaign swing in the West.

One recent Sunday morning, he could be found striding into Washington's National Airport, fresh from a hand-clapping, foot-stomping success at the Christian Coalition's annual meeting. He was armed with a newspaper and briefcase, garbed in the politician's standard-issue blue suit. He was headed to New Hampshire for three days of campaigning. No one paid a bit of attention.

This is the conservative made famous by his 1992 declaration of a cultural war "for the soul of America," a battle that he will likely wage as long as he can breathe--and talk.

"Have you read that U.N. report?" he asked supporters at a Republican town hall meeting in New Hampshire later the same day. "They say there aren't two sexes, there are five genders."

He paused for laughter, warmed to his crowd and continued: "They started with heterosexual; I followed them there. They went on to homosexual; I was slowing down. They said transsexual, that's the third one. I don't understand the last two. I tell you this: God created man and woman, I don't care what Bella Abzug says."

In the circles Buchanan travels, that one always goes over well. So do his stands on affirmative action (against), abortion (vehemently against), the death penalty (oh, yes), the Department of Education (oh, no).

He would bury the North American Free Trade Agreement and erect an ideological wall around the nation to rival the actual wall he would build along the U.S. border with Mexico. No more foreign aid, no more global free trade. In Buchanan's brand of economic nationalism, "we must stop sacrificing American jobs on the altar of transnational corporations."

And he would tell the nation about his economic platform, unveiled in a recent Wall Street Journal essay, if only people would tear their attention away from his stand on social issues. His program, he contends, will make America "the enterprise zone for the entire industrialized Western world."

The highlights: A flat tax on personal income. A flat tax for big corporations. A much lower tax for small ones. No more inheritance tax on family businesses and family farms. He will pay for the plan with a 10% tariff on Japanese imports and a 20% tariff on Chinese goods.

In New Hampshire, with its recent memory of economic privation, of local industries fleeing oversees, the Buchanan plan resonates.

Norma Moreau, 38, stands in front of Martha's Exchange restaurant and brew pub here in Nashua, waiting for a friend so they can map out the future of her small-business career. Moreau said that she is likely to cast her ballot for Buchanan, even though she disagrees with his rock-solid stand against abortion. Everything else, she says, she likes--particularly the tariffs.

"I think there should be tariffs put on anything from another country," said the owner of Imprints Ink, a struggling silk-screening firm. "We have to protect our own jobs. All we do is help other countries. Why don't we take the money and help the United States?"

She has too many friends who have lost their jobs, run out of unemployment assistance, lost their homes. "It's sad," she said.

Familiar Territory

Buchanan used this New Hampshire despair, coupled with Republican anger at the 1991 tax increase shepherded by then-President George Bush, to garner an unimaginable 37% of the vote in the 1992 GOP primary here.

He still considers the region his, with its picket fences, clapboard houses, and guys named Charlie who wear shirts and ties when they go to work pumping gas at the local Shell station.

People here still smoke in restaurants; adults are not required to wear seat belts or motorcycle helmets. The state motto is, "Live Free or Die."

At St. Marie Parish in industrial Manchester, where Buchanan took in Sunday Mass, the homily began with a tale about how burdensome laws in New York City required Mother Teresa to install an elevator for the handicapped in her refurbished community center. The result, according to the priest: She left.

"I notice Pat Buchanan is here," said Father Marc Montminy to great applause. "Welcome in our midst."

Charles M. Arlinghaus, executive director of New Hampshire's Republican State Committee, contends that the race here is still wide open and that Buchanan still has a shot. "Anyone could win New Hampshire," he said, "with a couple of exceptions I won't name."

Phillips concedes that Buchanan was underestimated in New Hampshire in 1992.

But the author of the American Political Report figures that a GOP presidential nomination for the conservative commentator and author is "unlikely." Chances are, Phillips says, Buchanan will not even win 25% of the vote in the upcoming New Hampshire primary.

"I think 25% would be doing very well," Phillips said. "It would probably put him second place, clearly put him third. He does have a chance of going that high. On the other hand, the chance of Pat lasting with a lot of pep into March is not very good. He doesn't have the budget."

But the lengthy race to choose a President is still in its very early stages, as was painfully evident as Buchanan campaigned in Concord Sept. 11.

Performing the mandatory New Hampshire dance of meet and greet the voters, he introduced himself to Bea McGinnis, 76, a loyal Republican, shook her hand and went on his way. And who does McGinnis like in the Republican race? "Well, you got Bill Wilson, running, right? He's a Republican. And I like John over there," she said, glancing at Buchanan's receding back. "That's his name, right?"

La Ganga reported this story while on assignment in New Hampshire.

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