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Jeffrey H. Birnbaum/Washington

RON MITCHELL MAKES PRETTY GOOD MONey for a guy who never went to college: $14.50 an hour as an electrician at a computer firm in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Trouble is, it’s the same pay he was earning 13 years ago. Over those years, Mitchell, 49, and his wife and three children had to make adjustments: sending her to work at an oatmeal factory, eating “a little lower on the food chain,” turning the thermostat down to 55 degrees and “walking around the house like Indians in blankets.” That might have been acceptable, the Mitchells say, if everyone were in the same boat. Instead–like three-fourths of Americans–their hourly pay has remained frozen even as executive salaries, corporate profits and the stock market have boomed. To borrow a phrase from the 1992 presidential campaign, the Mitchells have worked hard and played by the rules. But somehow the game got rigged. And they’re looking for someone to bring the old rules back.

Although Mitchell was once active in his county Democratic Party and supported Dick Gephardt for President in 1988 he can’t stomach Bill Clinton and hasn’t seen him tackle the wage problem in an effective way. Nor is Mitchell hearing answers from most of the Republicans running for President. But there’s one exception, and that’s why, on a crisp October evening, Mitchell drives to a hotel ballroom on the outskirts of town and listens to a former Nixon speechwriter named Pat Buchanan.

When Buchanan barks that it isn’t fair for “corporate chieftains” to get rich even as the wages of their workers stagnate, he seems to know what Mitchell and the 80 others in the audience are going through. They nod in approval when Buchanan slams President Clinton for lending billions of dollars to Mexico. “Why did we send them $50 billion?” the maverick Republican asks. “Because bonds were coming due, my friends!” And he cuts the air with a karate chop. “So we got the New York bankers–Citibank, Chase Manhattan and Goldman Sachs–off the hook. But guess who’s on the hook? You and your children and grandchildren!” The crowd applauds enthusiastically–as it does each time Buchanan sets up and knocks down another alleged enemy of the American worker, from trade agreements to the United Nations. Afterward, Mitchell concedes that he isn’t clear exactly how Buchanan would restore the old social compact and boost his pay. But at least Buchanan understands his problem and has given him someone to blame.

In the absence of anything better from any other candidate, that is comfort enough for Mitchell and, it seems, for millions of other voters. It has been enough to propel the bellicose Buchanan–infamous for a 1992 G.O.P. convention speech that sent a chill down the spine of anyone less inclined to see America in terms of us vs. them–into second place in the polls, just behind Senate majority leader Bob Dole. After a long time of hand-to-mouth electioneering, Buchanan earlier this month also claimed second place in the money race, surpassing the third-quarter fund raising of formidable fund raiser Phil Gramm.

Even more important than dollars or polls is the emerging sense that Buchanan is setting the pace in this race. He’s the one with the resonant message; he’s the one with the most passionate following, the true believers, who won’t drift off to support Lamar Alexander or Arlen Specter if the weather changes in New Hampshire. And most telling of all, he’s the one the other candidates have started to copy. Pat Buchanan is fast becoming the Perot of 1996, the maverick with a message who probably can’t win but certainly won’t go away.

Listen closely to the other candidates, and it is easy to conclude that Buchanan has, in one sense, already won. When Bob Dole denounces Hollywood sleazemongers, when Phil Gramm’s pollster tells him to talk more about “fair trade, not free trade,” when Arlen Specter starts to peddle a flat tax and Lamar Alexander blasts congressional pensions, Buchanan gets to lean back in the rented van that drives through the north country of New Hampshire and revel in remaking the Republican Party in his own image. This has become the Buchanan Effect. “All the candidates are responding to it,” he notes with satisfaction. “These moderate Republicans can’t go in the direction they want to go because of our campaign. We are setting the agenda for the party and, I think, to a degree, for the country. Right from this van.” And he laughs happily at the thought.

Last week he went further, drawing a line in the sand with himself, the “authentic conservative” in the race, on one side and the moderates on the other. “I say to Colin Powell, ‘Come into this race if you want, but you are not going to take this party back to the days of Rockefeller Republicanism, because we aren’t going to let you.'” He calls Dole and Gramm “leap-year conservatives” who shuttle to the right every four years but are squeamish moderates at heart. So this is the Buchanan Dilemma: Will red-meat conservatives who love Pat continue to support him right through the convention, even at the risk of helping re-elect a President they revile; or will they make a pragmatic decision to fall back and support the candidate with the best chance of winning the war?

Whatever role he finally plays–spoiler or kingmaker or king–Buchanan has already remodeled the tone and the substance of the G.O.P. race. Despite Census Bureau figures and polls that show flat wages are a central concern of most Americans, Buchanan is the only G.O.P. candidate to address the issue directly and with gusto. The left-wing Nation magazine calls Buchanan “the closest thing to a genuine populist in the 1996 race.” The others seem to have found no way to talk about income inequality without offending their affluent base of supporters and campaign contributors. While Buchanan strikes a populist note on the gap between wage earners and Wall Street, much more of his stump speech is devoted to redirecting blame at less powerful targets: immigrants, welfare recipients, homosexuals, beneficiaries of affirmative action, government bureaucrats. And it is in that mode–not his bashing of greedy bosses–that he is truly a leader in the Republican field. He has perfected a cathartic language that taps voters’ economic frustrations but deflects their attention away from painful solutions. His campaign and the others that ape it are dominated by the misleading–yet so far effective–politics of blame.

In one sense this target practice is nothing new: politicians have been using symbolic demons as a rhetorical device since the time of ancient Greece. But in recent elections the rules have changed. The disappearance of a cold war enemy invites politicians to take aim at internal targets that were once protected by the rules of patriotism. The industrial giants that built the arsenal of democracy are no longer sacred: What was good for General Motors was good for America–until GM began shipping jobs to Mexico. Psychologists have encouraged the trend by demonstrating that voters retain negative messages four to six times as readily as positive ones.

So when the economy turned pitiless and social disputes raged, politicians scrambled to find new enemies. In many ways, they are still searching, but most of the emblems of blame have one thing in common: they are surrogates for the sense of economic and cultural uncertainty that pervades modern life in America. “The American people see that the country they grew up in and loved is slipping away,” Buchanan explains. “There’s a large gut sense of economic insecurity that is pervasive in the middle class.” He hears it from parents wondering how they will possibly manage to send their children to college; from mothers who would rather not go back to work but feel they have no choice; from workers laid off by downsizing corporations or manufacturers who have moved jobs overseas.

At a glance, Buchanan seems like an improbable champion. Born in Washington, the son of an accountant, he has spent most of his life in the capital, living beside and preaching to the rich and powerful, and eventually becoming both himself. Michigan voters in 1992 were put off by his references to Cadillacs as “lemons” and by the fact that he drove a Mercedes (he has since sold it). Even when he trades his dark blue suits for a sweater and chinos, he has the bearing of a man in a tie.

BUT WHEN HE STARTS TO TALK about economic treachery, Buchanan speaks with the passion of the converted; those who have known him awhile can even recall his epiphany. It came in 1991, when he was campaigning in New Hampshire and visited a Groveton paper mill where laid-off workers were standing in line for their Christmas turkeys. “This fellow looks in my eyes,” he remembers, “and says, ‘Save our jobs.’ Parts of their paper mill are closing down, and then you go down to Manchester and you read about how the Export-Import Bank is financing a new paper mill in Mexico. And you ask yourself, What are we doing to our fellow countrymen here?” Buchanan has no illusions about what the future holds for high-school-educated, semiliterate factory workers. “You look at those fellows, and you realize they aren’t going to be making computers. They’re about my age. They’re the type of fellows I played ball with. And these guys’ lives are never going to be as good as they are now.” And for some reason, Buchanan marvels, his Republican rivals don’t grasp any of this. “This is what gets me about my Republican friends,” he says. “It’s not just that they disparage me. They will not even recognize what is going on in their own country.”

They may not feel it in their gut, but they see it in the polls, and Buchanan’s rivals have grown increasingly brazen about grabbing his message and making it their own. It was Buchanan, with his infamous declaration of a “cultural war” during the Republican Convention in 1992, who paved the way for Dole’s attack on Hollywood this year. Long before Gramm decided that ending affirmative action would be his first presidential act, Buchanan stood virtually alone against what he called “the whole rotten infrastructure of reverse discrimination.”

Since Buchanan’s campaign began to pick up steam over the summer, the mimicry has become more obvious. On July 11, Buchanan pledged in Des Moines, Iowa, to reduce “the confiscatory inheritance tax now imposed on American family farms”–a populist-sounding gloss on a measure that would benefit those who inherit between $600,000 and $5 million. Four days later, Gramm promised on CNN “to do something about inheritance taxes, which are now confiscatory.” In September, Buchanan called for a rollback of congressional pensions in the wake of Senator Bob Packwood’s resignation, only to be echoed by Lamar Alexander at the candidates’ forum in Manchester a few weeks later. “We got Arlen Specter talking about a flat tax,” Buchanan notes with glee. “Did you hear anything about a flat tax from [him] in all his years in the Senate?”

The list of appropriations goes on and on: In his announcement speech, Dole identified no fewer than a dozen Buchananesque villains, ranging from the U.N. to affirmative action–both of which Dole had supported in the past. Gramm took aim at half a dozen, including welfare recipients and prisoners. Before he dropped out of the race, California Governor Pete Wilson bet heavily on this year’s trifecta of blame: illegal immigrants, affirmative action and repeat criminals (with a call for “three strikes and you’re out” legislation). Buchanan, of course, had already put his money on those horses–and others too.

It is true that Buchanan has always been a flamethrower, but even he was not quite as incendiary in his 1992 debut campaign. That race was not freighted with nearly as much symbolic villainy. For Bill Clinton, it was “change” vs. the “status quo.” George Bush bashed liberals but mainly defended his accomplishments, among them steering the cold war to an end. As for Buchanan, a large (and not well remembered) part of his cultural-war diatribe at the convention was a paean to Bush in which he praised the President for his expertise in foreign affairs, something he would never do in a speech today. But in the political atmosphere of 1995, says Murray Edelman, an expert in rhetoric at the University of Wisconsin, “the number of enemies has proliferated. Instead of clear-sighted observation of what problems there are and how they should be dealt with, we become concerned with irrelevancies.”

Like any other seasoned writer, Buchanan spends time not only on what he says but also on how he says it; he searches for the tangy phrase, the sticky epithet, the cartoonish image that will lodge in voters’ minds and either inspire or terrify them: When he attacked the nomination of Dr. Henry Foster as Surgeon General, it was because “you can’t have an abortionist as America’s family doctor.” On the stump, Department of Education employees become “some guy in sandals and beads…telling us how to teach American history,” and the Democrats are “the party of national health insurance and Joycelyn Elders.” His campaign speech is made up of lines he has honed carefully. “You work on it and you work on it and you work on it,” he says. “And then you get the cheer line that comes to you. You try it again. And then you get it down to the point where it really works.” He calls getting the lines just right “going iambic.”

The heart of his message comes down to this: you have lost control over your lives, your money, your choices, your government. Who has power instead? Your enemies. Some of the enemies Buchanan serves up seem a bit farfetched. The fact that the National Endowment for the Arts has little to do with the collapse of the American family, for instance, does not prevent Buchanan from announcing that if he is elected, “the first week I’m going to walk out of that White House down to the NEA. I’m going to padlock the place and fumigate it.”

Next in his hierarchy of demons are corporations, the “transnational institutions that show no loyalty to a country now at all. They are concerned about the corporate economy. I’m concerned about the national economy. They are no longer one and the same.” These are the moments when Buchanan sounds like an unreconstructed liberal Democrat, defending labor unions and denouncing rapacious Big Business. But he does not extend his aim to the rich, perhaps because he understands what many have missed: most Americans do not want to hate rich people–they want to be them. “I really have no problem with Ted Turner making $2 billion or $3 billion,” Buchanan says. “If the real wages of everybody are going up, nobody’s going to complain whether somebody is going to make all of that. The problem is, the rising tide is not lifting all boats.”

For this he blames shrewd foreign competitors and American free traders, a message especially potent with displaced workers. He recently attended a rally in western Pennsylvania, where his mother was born and where his cousins still live. He remembers it as a thriving manufacturing region. And it is all disappearing. “We allowed those other countries to take over American industries: TVs, radios, motorcycles, cars. We gotta wake up and look these guys in the eye and say, Look, these are not like our golf partners. These people are rivals, competitors and, in the case of China, potential mighty adversaries. We have got to start being very tough.”

In Buchanan’s world view, that means no more International Monetary Fund, no more World Bank loans, no more Mexican bailouts. And his audience responds with cheers; Michael Shea, an electronics engineer, even bought his own copy of the huge General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. “Those people are Democrats–they’re union people,” Buchanan says of the Pennsylvania crowd. “Some of them came up to me and said, ‘I’ve never voted Republican, I’ve never been to a Republican gathering. But I’m with you.'”

International organizations, especially the U.N., come in for special vitriol, since they act as such handy substitutes for an overall sense of powerlessness, the ceding of sovereignty. Buchanan often reminds audiences of the 15 Americans killed by friendly fire while on patrol protecting the Kurds in northern Iraq. “The Vice President of the U.S. issued a formal statement,” Buchanan declares with quiet fury. “He said the parents of these young Americans can be proud they died in the service”–and then he pauses–“of the U.N.” After the moans and boos of the crowd subside, he continues: “I tell you, when I get to that Oval Office, never again will young Americans be sent into battle except under American officers and under the American flag.”

The secret of Buchanan’s appeal is not just that he has identified this sense of helplessness but also that he has grafted it onto his trademark message of God, country, family and faith; in this way he is engaged in a neat bit of political matchmaking between the economic populists and the social conservatives. Many of those drawn to his rally are responding to the moral positions Buchanan staked out in 1992, when he famously declared that “in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.” He plays to the family-values partisans, the isolationists, the creationists and the gun owners, and to the Perotistas who would vote for anyone promising to turn Washington on its head. “I can bring them home,” he declared last week of the rebel Perot supporters, “because I’m not part of the system.”

Taken separately, each group has many reasons not to vote for the same person. Economic conservatives often have libertarian views about government intervention in personal lives. Many antiabortion advocates and pro-family conservatives benefit from the types of government programs a fiscal conservative like Buchanan would eliminate. Nonetheless, they all seem to believe fervently in Buchanan, perhaps because he seems to believe so fervently in what he says. He is not the product of a pollster or a focus group. And that sometimes gets him into trouble as well.

Buchanan insists that raising the living standard of working Americans is the key to “relieving some of the social tensions and social divisions.” But as a speechwriter, columnist and candidate, he has rarely missed a chance to open those wounds and pour salt in them. In 1992 he talked publicly about the problems a million immigrant “Zulus” might have assimilating in Virginia, compared with a million “Englishmen.” He has expressed some doubts about the Holocaust and has said of the AIDS epidemic that “promiscuous homosexuals appear literally hell-bent on Satanism and suicide.” His past attacks on gays, Jews and minorities make him a scary prospect, particularly as his rhetoric becomes more nuanced and his codes more subtle this time around.

This is why Buchanan can be running a strong second and can still seem to analysts more an irritant than a threat. The emotions he stirs are intense, both for him and against him. His negative ratings have consistently been roughly double the percentage of people who support him. Even some political operatives are wary of the risks. Sal Russo, a respected G.O.P. consultant in Sacramento, California, says he advised Pete Wilson to beware the fearmongering. “When you take that negative, finger-pointing path, you polarize your potential support. That means you can get to 50%, but it’s hard to get much higher,” Russo argues. “I believe it’s much easier to get people revved up with a shining city on a hill.” The whole tenor of Buchanan’s campaign, particularly as it reverberates across the Republican field, may also take a larger toll. At a time when popular faith in public institutions is reaching an all-time low, presidential candidates pile on at their own risk. “It creates a circular problem,” observes Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania. “The more politicians complain about the government they would be part of, the harder it is for them to govern.”

For all his evangelical fervor, when Buchanan talks about reclaiming the presidency as a bully pulpit, the operative word is more “bully” than “pulpit.” He pulls no punches, whether he is attacking the weak or the powerful. And simply by standing up and preaching with such apparent conviction, speaking the unspeakable and crossing the lines of polite political discourse, Buchanan distinguishes himself from every candidate who ever waffled or wavered or hinted or hedged. As the ’96 race stands, that distinction promises to carry him a long way.

–With reporting by Nina Burleigh/Washington

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