Even before today’s New Hampshire presidential primary, the Republican establishment had settled on its morning-after goal: block Pat Buchanan.
A crowded primary calendar and a winnowed field should help the man who emerges tonight with that mission. The only question was who would lead it.
“The real race here now is Dole-Alexander,” said William Kristol, the conservative strategist and commentator.
“No matter how well Buchanan does here, one of those two is still going to look like a much more credible candidate for the general election.”
Few Republicans believe Buchanan can win the party’s presidential nomination, yet they view stripping him of momentum - and the attention that comes with it - as an urgent task. His controversial views are unsettling to most GOP leaders, who worry Buchanan is a threat to the party’s chances of beating President Clinton in November.
“They are panicked,” is Buchanan’s response to such talk. “All we threaten is changing the establishment and making this party more responsive to working people.”
That Buchanan was in contention to win New Hampshire at all is a telling sign of how much the race has changed since the turn of the year.
Not too long ago, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole talked of locking up the nomination with a big New Hampshire victory. Now, he talks of just surviving, and openly discusses the prospect of losing to Buchanan here.
“It wouldn’t be helpful,” Dole said, in a considerable understatement.
Still, while placing second to Buchanan would break Dole’s already loose hold on the title of front-runner, it might not prove fatal to his candidacy. In this equation, much would depend on the showing of former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.
In New Hampshire, public and private surveys showed Dole neck-and-neck with Buchanan. While some showed Alexander trailing only slightly, a few had evidence that his post-Iowa surge had stalled.
For Alexander, anything less than second could be fatal. After placing third in Iowa, he was able to raise less than $500,000 this week, well below his goal and well short of what will be necessary to compete in the 30 GOP nominating contests in the next six weeks.
As Buchanan support grew, a rally-round-Dole sentiment emerged from Republicans, even recent foes. Sen. Phil Gramm, no friend of Dole, endorsed him on Saturday. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has privately voiced alarm about Buchanan’s strength and said publicly Buchanan should distance himself from racists. Still, Dole has plenty to prove.
“The fundamental question of this campaign has always been: Is Dole Mondale or Muskie?” said Kristol. The comparison is to Democratic campaigns past: Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie won New Hampshire in 1972 but fell below expectations and never recovered; Walter Mondale, the former vice president, was stunned by Gary Hart in New Hampshire in 1984 but recovered to win the Democratic nomination.
“We will know the answer very fast,” Kristol said.
To those who make the Mondale-Muskie analogy, Buchanan has a Democratic counterpart, too: Jesse Jackson.
In 1984 and 1988, Jackson failed to win the Democratic nomination but wrung concessions from Mondale and Michael Dukakis that Republicans, and many Democrats, believe ultimately hurt the Democratic ticket.
“One big challenge for either Bob Dole or Lamar Alexander is to not make the same mistake and appear to be pandering to Buchanan as Democrats have pandered to Jackson,” Kristol said. “Pat Buchanan cannot win the nomination but he can do damage by staying in and hammering our nominee.”
In predicting a Dole-Buchanan race beyond New Hampshire, Dole campaign manager Scott Reed suggested there would be few concessions to Buchanan: “There is absolutely no way he can beat Bill Clinton and there is no way the party will go over the cliff with him and his protectionist trade policies.”
Already, however, Dole has broadened his economic speech trying to address the middle-class anxiety at the core of Buchanan’s populist pitch.
“In that regard he has been a good influence,” said GOP pollster Ed Goeas. “We need the right mix of economics and values for the general election.”
South Carolina, Georgia, Arizona and Colorado should prove the biggest tests for Buchanan. He will no longer have the luxury of concentrating on one state at a time.
“New Hampshire will make it a two man-race,” said Reed. “And the Dole campaign is the only campaign with the staying power to go through the entire primary calendar.”
That assumes, of course, that Dole makes New Hampshire’s cut.
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