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Buchanan Fails to Win Key Conservative Backing : Politics: After nine ballots, California Republican Assembly can’t decide between the commentator and rival Alan Keyes.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Commentator Patrick J. Buchanan failed Sunday to win formal endorsement of the California Republican Assembly for President--the backing that he said would have established him as the single conservative alternative to front-runner Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas.

But Buchanan’s chief competitor for anointment by conservative Republican loyalists, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, did even worse. And Dole, who also has sought to ratify his conservative credentials, received the vote of just one delegate.

At the outset of six hours of balloting, Buchanan, the former aide to Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, won the backing of 46% of the conservative GOP group’s 392 voting delegates. Alan Keyes of Maryland, the first African American to run for the Republican presidential nomination, was second with 29%, and Gramm was third at 24%.

Buchanan thus fell well short of the two-thirds vote required by CRA rules for a formal endorsement. As the voting progressed--and it was obvious Gramm had no chance to win the bid--Gramm delegates threw their support to Keyes, thus denying Buchanan a clear victory.

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On the ninth and final ballot, a roll call vote taken beneath olive trees in a courtyard outside the convention hall at the Oakland Airport Hilton, Keyes won 58% of the vote and Buchanan 42%. As they ran overtime, the delegates were forced to move outside to free the convention hall for another scheduled event.

For the record, there was no endorsement. Still, representatives of Buchanan and Keyes claimed success.

“We believe that we have a victory in California,” said George Uribe, national political director for Keyes, a 45-year-old former ambassador to one of the units of the United Nations and a protege of former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick.

“We clearly won a majority vote,” Uribe said.

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Angela (Bay) Buchanan, Buchanan’s sister and campaign manager, insisted the long day was a victory for Buchanan, who addressed the convention Saturday night and flew to Boston on Sunday morning.

“He’s clearly won it,” she said of her brother. Of the Gramm tactic of joining the opposition forces against Buchanan, she said, “He’s a drowning man reaching for straws.”

When delegates arrived at the convention hall Sunday morning, each got a letter from Bay Buchanan saying: “An endorsement of Pat Buchanan would send a thundering message that conservatives are stepping forward, recognizing that while there are many in the race, it is now time to move behind the conservative candidate who can win.”

Buchanan had looked to the California vote as the catalyst that would help propel him out of the pack and into a one-on-one confrontation with Dole. Both Dole and Gramm sent surrogates to represent them here.

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Coming into this meeting, Buchanan was buoyed by a new opinion poll in New Hampshire showing that he was running second to Dole, closing to within 10% of the front-runner in the state with the nation’s first primary election next February.

In a fiery speech at Saturday’s banquet, Buchanan appealed to the 500 delegates and guests to “send a message to the country from out here.” In 1992, the CRA supported Buchanan over then-President George Bush.

Some delegates within the Buchanan camp were surprised he did not win, although Buchanan aides said going into the three-day convention that it would be a close contest.

The voting of the 392 official delegates also went against the majority of the CRA’s leadership, who recommended an endorsement of Gramm. They knew there was considerable emotional support for Buchanan, but put forth Gramm as “the conservative who can win.”

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CRA leaders also feared that if they failed to unite behind one candidate, the divisiveness would be interpreted as a victory by default for Dole. Dole’s California chairman is Gov. Pete Wilson, who has warred with hard-core California conservatives for years.

The California Republican Assembly, a coalition of volunteer clubs, counts a total membership estimated at 4,500. But CRA endorsements are considered far more influential than their numbers might indicate because members are the activists who spend time, energy and money organizing for their anointed candidates.

Also, in recent years, CRA leaders have moved on to top spots in the California Republican Party. The state party will conduct a straw poll for President when it meets next in February.

That will be right before the first big presidential event, the Iowa caucuses. The California presidential primary is scheduled March 26. Many political experts have predicted that someone will sew up the GOP presidential nomination before then, thus rendering California irrelevant.

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Keyes’ strength surprised some, but he has been popular with California conservatives for his polished rhetoric and his dedication to the key social and cultural issues that energize CRA members. Chief among them is opposition to abortion. Promotion of “family values” is the core of Keyes’ campaign.

In an address at lunch on Saturday, Keyes criticized those who might seek to limit controversy by subordinating social issues to the economy and government spending.

“If we continue to allow our moral foundation to crumble, it won’t matter what we do about the economy,” said Keyes, who has run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in Maryland. “This republic will perish anyway.”

Keyes said he would continue to emphasize “principles that will make our families strong and our neighborhoods safe.”

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Keyes, Buchanan and others won repeated applause by addressing a litany of conservative litmus test issues, including opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and other pacts that they insisted have undermined American sovereignty.

Perhaps the biggest outburst of cheering and applause came Friday night when Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Vietnam war hero representing Gramm, declared that American troops should never be sent off to combat “wearing blue helmets,” under the command of the United Nations. The candidates all appeared to be united, as well, in opposition to any U.S. involvement in Bosnia.

The candidates also made it clear they are prepared to battle at the Republican National Convention in San Diego next August to retain the present platform provision opposing legal abortion.

Buchanan declared: “Win, lose or draw, I’m going to San Diego and I’m going to fight my heart out to keep this party pro-life.” And if elected President, Buchanan said, he would only nominate U.S. Supreme Court justices who would pledge to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1972 court decision on abortion rights.

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Among the presidential candidates whose names were put in nomination for the CRA endorsement was Rep. Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove. But a Dornan spokesman told delegates that the congressman had decided to run for reelection rather than pursue the presidency and asked that his name be withdrawn.


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