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Republicans: How Bush Will Battle Buchanan

7 minute read
Michael Duffy/Washington

On the morning after the New Hampshire primary, George Bush’s campaign advisers were trying hard not to act badly shaken. Running against a field of fringe candidates led by conservative columnist Pat Buchanan, the President had managed to win only 53% of the vote. The confusion about what to do next was obvious. Bush began by implying that he would not stoop to personal attacks on Buchanan, then immediately dredged up a nine-year-old article in which Buchanan called for making Social Security “voluntary.” A day later, Bush changed tactics again. Campaign officials explained that Bush would not squander one of his bigger campaign assets — the dignity of his office — by getting down and dirty with a man who once crafted verbal spitballs for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Once their hearts stopped fibrillating, Bush’s aides remembered that the primary deck is stacked heavily in their favor. “The real struggle,” said a Bush official, “is not to overreact.” Nearly all the contests during the next 30 days award delegates on a winner-take-all basis, virtually assuring Bush of a sweep. In states where delegates are apportioned according to the vote, Bush has his opponent hopelessly outorganized. Unless Buchanan wins somewhere soon, last week’s burst will soon be a memory: G.O.P. rules require that a candidate must win a majority of delegates in five states before his or her name can be placed in nomination at the convention.

Still, Buchanan poses several formidable problems for Bush at a time when he had hoped to breeze to renomination. As in New Hampshire, Buchanan could become a lightning rod for voters eager to send the President an angry message about his inept handling of the economy, and Buchanan might attract enough right-wing votes to erode Bush’s fragile conservative base. Worse yet, Buchanan’s attacks have turned the primary season into a referendum on Bush’s performance, highlighting weaknesses that the Democrats can exploit in the fall. Says a campaign official: “Buchanan is not the problem. We are.”

To be sure, Bush sometimes acted as if he were secretly Buchanan’s campaign manager. During the early months of the recession, Bush refused to even acknowledge that the country was suffering hard times. He made three hurried campaign swings in hard-hit New Hampshire but never attempted to mask the political expediency of his visits. Said he, with typical inelegance: “But the message — I care.” His deliberate attempts to mix with ordinary Americans seemed uncomfortable and awkward. Bush’s poll numbers dropped every time he visited the state. Meanwhile, Buchanan exploited the President’s decision to exclude a proposed $500 increase in personal income tax exemptions from the latest budget request he submitted to Congress. “Don’t be fooled again,” intoned a hastily put together Buchanan ad. “It is George Bush himself that’s taxing and spending your future away.” In a fit of hairsplitting, Bush denied that he had ever taken the New Hampshire pledge in 1988.

The string of blunders probably accounted for Buchanan’s surge in the final days of the campaign. “The President,” says a top campaign official, “was paying the price for a very poor economy and a perception of noninterest, noninvolvement and nonunderstanding of the recession over a lengthy period of time.”

For a few hours, when early exit polls showed Buchanan in a dead heat with Bush, the President’s advisers feared that he might be defeated. Campaign manager Robert Teeter telephoned Bush to warn him. Realizing that male voters were turning out in disproportionate numbers for Buchanan, Bush officials issued an emergency order to the campaign’s massive phone banks: Call only women voters.

The next Bush-Buchanan showdown is set for March 3 in Georgia, where House minority whip Newt Gingrich believes the challenger may strip as much as 30% from the incumbent’s vote. Though it hardly seems possible, Buchanan has escalated his rhetorical blasts to new heights of populist rage. Late last week Buchanan was appealing to racial resentments by accusing Bush of signing a civil rights bill that would sanctify reverse discrimination against whites. “If you belong to the Exeter-Yale G.O.P. club, that’s not going to bother you greatly because, as we know, it is not their children who get bused out of South Boston into Roxbury,” Buchanan complained. “It is the sons and daughters of Middle America who pay the price of reverse discrimination advanced by the Walker’s Point G.O.P. to salve their social consciences at other people’s expense.”

Parrying Buchanan’s bombast will require finesse. In New Hampshire, Bush declined to attack Buchanan directly and never mentioned him by name. The decision, according to a campaign adviser, was based on the belief that “people voted for Buchanan as a protest, so it wouldn’t have mattered if we had gone negative on him in New Hampshire. Even if they’d thought Buchanan was a kook, they still would have voted for him.” The same danger lurks in the South, especially in such states as Georgia, Mississippi and Texas, where Democrats are allowed to vote in G.O.P. primaries. Moreover, the President cannot afford to alienate conservatives whose support he will need in November, particularly in the South, where former Ku Klux Klan wizard David Duke may be able to slice off several percentage points should he run in the general election.

Thus the job of pummeling Buchanan will fall to Bush surrogates, including Vice President Dan Quayle and former Marine Corps Commandant General P.X. Kelley. They will crisscross the South, appealing to the region’s patriotism by depicting Buchanan as a neo-isolationist who opposed the Persian Gulf war.

As he has long preferred, Bush will stick to the high road, stressing his handling of the Persian Gulf war and other foreign policy issues. In recent speeches, Bush has maintained that he was too busy personally turning “the world around” during his first term to devote himself to domestic problems. In his second term, he promises to do better. As he put it last week in Knoxville, “We stand today at what I think most people would agree is a pivot point in history, at the end of one era and the beginning of another.”

If only by sheer attrition, Bush will prevail over Buchanan and win renomination. In the meantime, the question is whether Bush’s advisers can prevent the struggle from diminishing the President’s chances in the fall. If Bush faces Bill Clinton in November, the President’s aides think that their boss’s World War II heroism and image as a devoted family man will compare favorably to the Arkansas Governor’s record on at least those two scores. But the Democratic nominee, whoever it turns out to be, will be harder to beat if Buchanan keeps knocking the President off balance. Teeter likes to say that Americans “understand that George Bush is not about to let the wheels come off.” If voters come to feel that Bush’s stability is just another word for inertia, anything could happen this fall.

CHART: NOT AVAILABLE

CREDIT: From a telephone poll of 1,250 American adults taken for TIME/CNN on Feb. 20 by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman. Sampling error is plus or minus 2.8%.

CAPTION: Does President Bush understand the problems of the average American?

Does Pat Buchanan’s strong support indicate that people want to send Bush a message, or that people are willing to support conservative principles?

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