On a sultry evening in this capital city, a small crowd of people snaked their cars through a suburb of tall southern pines to see the man who would be president. “Abortion is Murder,” read one car’s bumper sticker. “Save the Males,” said another. “Go Pat Go,” was on a third.
“Pat” is Patrick Buchanan, the Republican spoiler in the 1992 presidential primaries. Playing to the conservative crowd at a fund-raiser here last week, he trumpeted himself as an “unemployed angry white male” - then laughed uproariously to make sure people knew this wealthy man who quit his CNN job as a conservative commentator was just joking.
Some observers have been quick to dismiss Buchanan’s second campaign as a joke as well, noting he ranks fourth among Republican hopefuls in the latest national Gallup poll and faces more competitors than in his anti-Bush drive in 1992.
While Buchanan is a long shot, he is also better known than others in the field and gets plenty of press for his strident sound bites. He also has raised enough money to run a respectable campaign, and he and his supporters are relentlessly pushing the Republican candidates to the right.
“We lost the nomination,” Buchanan says of 1992 at nearly every campaign stop, “but we won the heart and soul of the Republican Party.” Smirking at the competition, he adds: “Why take someone who sounds like Buchanan when you can get the real thing?”
Buchanan reels off the issues that he says other candidates have copied from him: cutting immigration, ending affirmative action, enacting tax cuts and other issues that are now standard party fare. At the least, Buchanan’s candidacy keeps the other candidates uncomfortable, forcing them to explain their support of free-trade deals and their willingness to accept vice presidential candidates who support abortion rights.
At a time when the Republican Party is becoming more conservative, Buchanan’s viability is in persuading voters that other candidates who call themselves conservative are actually establishment Republicans. As a result, Buchanan has leaned even farther to the right than in 1992, criticizing the Christian Coalition’s agenda as too moderate, dismissing Texas Sen. Phil Gramm as a past supporter of tax hikes and castigating Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas as a deal-making “Beltway Bob.”
Buchanan’s first and foremost strategy in 1996 is to knock off Gramm and become the alternative to Dole. “Phil Gramm has a problem, and it’s me,” Buchanan said in an interview. Delivering a message to the Texan, Buchanan said, “Get out of the way and let me to the finals.”
Buchanan has been buoyed somewhat by Gramm’s feud with New Hampshire Gov. Stephen Merrill over the state’s first-primary status. Buchanan got 37 percent of the state’s vote against Bush in 1992; a recent New Hampshire poll by American Research Group found Buchanan trailing Dole by a 44-13 percent margin, with Gramm getting only 7 percent.
Buchanan’s primary strategy depends on doing well with the religious right in Iowa, where he did not compete in 1992, repeating a strong performance in New Hampshire and picking up a win in the South.
That is why Buchanan last week spent two days touring South Carolina, which holds the first Southern primary on March 2 and envisions itself as the New Hampshire of the South. To the Carolinians at the fund-raiser, Buchanan was a star because he vowed to be “the most pro-life president in history” and because he opposed the free-trade deals endorsed by Dole and Gramm. The deals are unpopular in this state because of the perception that they will lead to a flood of cheap textile imports. The textile industry here has been one of Buchanan’s strongest supporters.
“You know where Pat Buchanan stands,” said the South Carolina Republican Party chairman, Henry McMaster, who has not endorsed any candidate. “In the South we like plain talk, and we don’t like double talk. Buchanan is someone who is willing to stand up and fight.”
“I feel like he is the most conservative Republican,” said Janice Harper, who attended the fundraiser. “We don’t need someone wishy-washy.”