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11 minute read
Richard Lacayo

CONGRESS IS BACK IN SESSION NOW, AND Newt Gingrich–remember him?–is chewing over numbers. For Gingrich the House Speaker, there are all the usual budget totals and legislative head counts to think about. But for Gingrich the Party Strategist, there’s just one big number: 35%. That’s the high-end estimate of how many Republicans go for Pat Buchanan. What worries the G.O.P. leadership is that some of them might leave with him too should the party turn its back on them. Even if Buchanan doesn’t become the Republican nominee–and G.O.P. leaders are still convinced It Can’t Possibly Happen–the forces that Pat has mobilized will remain as both a temptation and a headache all the way to November. Who they are, what they want and how much the G.O.P. can offer them without coming unmoored from its philosophical principles are suddenly the most urgent questions the G.O.P. faces.

In a meeting last week between Gingrich and a group of House Republicans, Indiana Representative Mark Souder urged the Speaker to consider some measures that aren’t found in the texts of party orthodoxy. Last year, for instance, Republicans in Congress backed an effort to make it easier for employers to withdraw excess money from employee pension funds. Souder argued for a gesture in the opposite direction: making pensions portable, so that a worker who has been laid off can take his pension with him. Gingrich gave back “his kind of tilted-chin, inquisitive look,” says Souder. To anyone familiar with the Speaker’s facial English, this is something different from his jaw-set, get-on-with-it look. It meant he was listening. In Gingrich’s free-market philosophy, the needs of business and workers shouldn’t be so much at odds. Neither should the G.O.P. and the blue-collar voters it must hold. Says Souder: “He’s trying to figure out how we get these blended together.”

Just how tricky that blend will be is evident in the results of the latest TIME/CNN Election Monitor, a poll that returns periodically to the same large sample of registered voters to map the shifts in their mood. If Bob Dole is right that the primaries this year are a battle for the heart and soul of the party, what he’s likely to find is a detectable pulse in several far-separated points on the ideological spectrum. Is there a way to mix contented executives with angry workers? And to mix ardent pro-lifers with libertarians? If there is, none of the G.O.P. candidates are sure yet what it might be. “The way they’ve been going at each other, they’ve got me all screwed up, and I’m not sure if they haven’t done the same to the whole freaking party,” says Don Griffin of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a self-employed business consultant polled for the Election Monitor. “The Republican Party needs to coagulate.”

But first, some bloodletting. Among the people questioned in the past two surveys–each time about 1,000 registered voters who identify themselves as Republicans or leaning in that direction–the mood is volatile. In a one-month period ending in late February, there was a movement away from both Dole (down 10 points) and Steve Forbes (down 6) and toward Buchanan (up 16 points) and Lamar Alexander (up 9). For all the attention lately to his weaknesses, however, Dole remains well out front with a double-digit lead over all his nearest competitors.

But with voter loyalty this year a sometime thing, any of those numbers could jump or dive soon. What’s going to prove more enduring are the grievances of Buchanan supporters and the intensity that makes them a breed apart from other Republican voters. Compared with the middling sort behind Dole, Forbes or Alexander, the word that best characterizes them is more. On controversial issues the Dole-Forbes-Alexander supporters are roughly similar in outlook. The Buchananites are a statistical fever spike.

The people who are punching the air at Buchanan rallies are more alarmed about the present, more willing to contemplate radical change, more antigovernment (except when it comes to government promoting traditional values), more antiabortion, more anti-free trade. Talk to them, and you will hear 71% say the country is in deep and serious trouble, 60% that the U.S. should radically reduce its role in international affairs, 56% that the G.O.P. platform should call for a constitutional ban on abortion. (By way of comparison, just 22% of Dole’s supporters want an antiabortion amendment, 24% of Alexander’s and 18% of Forbes’.) They tend to agree with him so strongly on some points that they agree to disagree with him on others: 27% of his supporters have said they are pro-choice.

What that means for traditional Republicans is that the Buchanan cohort is large and desirable but maybe also impossible to accommodate. The issues–and the answers–that excite them are the very ones most likely to drive away moderates. The response from some quarters of the party has been to declare Buchanan beyond the pale. William Bennett, the moralist-at-large backing Lamar Alexander, has even predicted a third-party effort if Buchanan is the nominee. What Gingrich is hearing from many of the influential G.O.P. freshmen, however, is that the Buchanan crowd is a force that must be reckoned with. “It’s not a real bright idea for some of the more senior Republicans around here to be calling this group extremists,” says Representative Joe Scarborough of Florida’s Dixie-oriented Panhandle. “We can either ignore Buchanan’s message and face the consequences or acknowledge the potency of his ideas.”

Scarborough warns that a good many G.O.P. freshmen were elected with a campaign message not unlike the one Buchanan offers: trade protectionism, social conservatism and something not so different from isolationism in foreign affairs. that’s why, once in washington, they were out front in the fight against NAFTA, the Mexican bailout and the U.S. mission in Bosnia. Those Buchanan-ish freshmen, Scarborough insists, have grasped themes that are key to the future strength of the G.O.P. coalition. “We finally have a group of Republicans who know how to appeal to people who are earning $30,000 or less.”

And Buchanan has that know-how. In the TIME/CNN Election Monitor, he’s the G.O.P. candidate with the largest share of supporters, 31%, in the $20,000-to-$35,000 income range. The same group comprises just 21% of Dole’s backers, 19% of Alexander’s and 14% of Forbes’. Mario Abruzzini, 37, is a bricklayer in Concord, California, who likes Buchanan because he’s concerned about immigration but also because he bares his fangs at the business elite. “People need to be aware of how some of these corporations are treating their employees,” he says.

For a lot of Republicans, the very sources of Buchanan’s strength, the red-hot positions and saw-toothed language, make a virtue of Dole’s familiarity, his room-temperature manner and his gift for legislative dealing. When the Election Monitor asked which candidate had the best chance of beating Bill Clinton, Dole came out ahead. “Buchanan just sends off so many sparks,” says California-based pollster Mervin Field. “If ever somebody polarized the public, it’s Buchanan. He’s given a new definition to the word polarizing.”

“Buchanan? I don’t know,” says Dole supporter Isobel Cameron, a 63-year-old retiree from Palm Coast, Florida. “He’s scary in a lot of ways. I hate to use the word radical, but he’s too far out on some issues.” That’s the opening that Alexander hopes to exploit. The “lesser of three evils” is how he’s described by Ron Stump, 46, a military veteran and now a student in industrial distribution in Lexington, Nebraska. To put it another way, an indefinable aura of middleness is his greatest strength. Shirley Ferris, 72, an Alexander supporter in Lompoc, California, says there isn’t any particular position of his that attracts her: “He seems like he’s an honest man. He’s a little more middle of the road, not so far off, like Buchanan.”

In line with other polls, what the Election Monitor points to is a race in which different constituencies within the party–not all of them compatible ones–each have a clear and present candidate. For the radically discontented, Buchanan. For the upscale suburbanite whose main concern is tax relief, Forbes. That leaves Dole and Alexander to divide between them the Republican center. “More than in most races one can imagine the prototypical Dole, Buchanan and Forbes voters,” says Republican strategist William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. “You can imagine them living very different lives and not liking each other very much.”

Kevin Phillips, a maverick Republican analyst, breaks it down this way. Forbes: “He has got a message which is, ‘If you’ve got money, be happy.’ That works nicely for the upper middle class. It says, ‘Don’t take my stock-market profits; don’t take my golf bag away.'” Dole supporters? “The old Republican solid-citizens’ club. They don’t mind that Dole doesn’t have new ideas, because they don’t have new ideas either. They have old verities.” And Buchanan? “He represents the not-happy-with-the-way-things-have-panned-out, blue-collar part of this coalition. They are headed for the exits.”

Waiting for them there is Bill Clinton. Uncompromising pro-lifers will probably vote Republican in November even if Buchanan is not on the ticket. But the White House is confident it can lure away some of Buchanan’s blue-collar support. “An audience for a Democratic Party that talks about rising living standards and a changing economy” is how pollster Stanley Greenberg, an adviser to the Democratic Party, describes them. “I believe those issues will be central to the President’s campaign.”

In an election year just about all governance is a subdepartment of the campaign. When Clinton gathered TV executives at the White House last week for their announcement that they are embarking on a rating system for television sex and violence, it was both policy and politics. And it was both again when, two days earlier, House minority leader Richard Gephardt offered a package of economic proposals, including some revisions in U.S. trade policy and incentives to business to reward workers for gains in performance.

Republicans in Congress are also trying to connect with the Buchanan mood, so long as they can do it without moving much from their old positions. “Economic anxiety is a reality,” Gingrich advised in a memo to fellow Republican leaders last month. “We must be prepared to show that we recognize that reality.” But the solutions he offered were dog-eared pages from the Contract with America: a balanced budget, tax cuts, welfare reform. In a speech last week to the Heritage Foundation, House majority leader Dick Armey blamed the jitters in working households on what he called the “Clinton crunch” in the economy. The remedies? He lapsed into Republican default mode: a lower capital-gains tax, reduced regulations on business and so on.

For the Buchananites who may not be satisfied until they see the heads of corporate America on WANTED posters–or better still, on pikes–the classic Republican ideas won’t be enough. Freshman Scarborough says that on the capital-gains tax cut, “Armey may have a point. But in terms of having a direct impact on the working class, an issue like that doesn’t resonate.” Says freshman Souder: “We can’t just go to social Darwinism and unfettered capitalism.” Though he describes himself as an “archcapitalist,” he wants the party to push for a cap on the amount that corporations can deduct from their taxes for the bonuses and stock options they pay their executives. “When you’re getting laid off,” he asks, “should you have to subsidize the bonus of the guy who is laying you off?”

Will even that be enough for Buchanan’s folks? Wearing a gray business suit and a jubilant expression, Mike Wells, 24, was one of 1,300 people who turned out last week to see Buchanan speak at the Cobb County Civic Center in Marietta, Georgia, deep in Gingrich’s own congressional district. Every time Buchanan said something Wells liked, as when the candidate talked about stopping illegal immigration, Wells shouted, “Real people!”

“Look around and you can see the ‘browning’ of America,” says Wells. “America will not ‘brown’ if we stop Mexican immigration.” Mike Bitar, 40, born in Jerusalem, says he immigrated to the U.S. 20 years ago. Now he’s a database analyst in Atlanta with a wife who teaches elementary school. “We have two professional incomes and no savings,” he says. “The corporate thieves are destroying our jobs and doubling their multimillionaire salaries at the same time.” At one point or another in his speech that night, Buchanan played to them both. Real people? To be sure. Real Republicans? The party has from now until November to decide.

–Reported by Jeffrey H.Birnbaum and Karen Tumulty/Washington, Barbara Burke, Tom Curry and Kathryn Jackson Fallon/New York

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