The stakes in the Republican presidential campaign grew ever bigger on Thursday: enough to cast a cloud over the unity of the party itself and the GOP’s treasured revolution in Congress.
As all the major candidates but Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas gathered here for a debate in which they clashed over trade policy while competing over who could be tougher on illegal immigration, the Republican contest had begun vibrating so violently as to shake the party to its foundations.
With the GOP establishment growing more worried about the wildfire candidacy of Patrick J. Buchanan, Dole and dark-horse candidate Sen. Richard G. Lugar said Buchanan’s candidacy would risk the Republicans’ hard-won control of Congress.
“I’ll tell you, with a Buchanan candidacy, we’d be lucky to hold on and keep our majority in the House and the Senate and the state legislators and courthouses and anyplace else,” Dole said in Colorado.
Buchanan answered back ominously. He was tired of the pile-on intensity of the attacks, he said, warning that he and his voters, no longer taken lightly, cannot be taken for granted.
“I’ve always supported the Republican nominee, but I tell you, the name-calling is making it very difficult for my people and my movement to support someone who’s called me a lot of names,” Buchanan said.
Conservative leaders, meanwhile, expressed their own worries - that establishment alarm over Buchanan was drifting dangerously close to an all-out attack on the bedrock right.
“Quit attacking him and calling him names,” said Ralph Reed, the head of the Christian Coalition. Such complaints from conservatives have been a major topic at the Conservative Political Action Conference - an annual gathering of conservative leaders - which continues today in Washington.
Perhaps in response to such complaints, Dole strategists said they were ratcheting down their anti-Buchanan rhetoric and eliminating the word “extremist” from their campaign lexicon.
At a late-night news conference in Portland, Dole insisted that he, personally, had never called Buchanan an “extremist,” but added that he would continue to say he has “extreme views.”
The Thursday night debate once again displayed how Buchanan’s agenda has come to dominate the GOP campaign. He, Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes and Rep. Robert K. Dornan of California spent much of the 90-minute forum jousting on trade and immigration - Buchanan’s turf.
The conservative commentator defiantly described his would-be trade meetings with foreign leaders on trade issues, singling out China and its high tariff on American goods as a target of a Buchanan administration.
“Dealing with England is one thing,” he said. “I would sit down with communist China … and say this may be a good deal for you but it is not for me. … Besides that, we don’t like the way you treat dissidents and the way you treat women so we are not going to treat you the same way we treat a democratic republic because you are a brutal dictatorship. …”
His two main debate rivals attacked Buchanan’s trade policies.
“Buchananism says that to create jobs, we build a wall around the country,” said Alexander. “I say to create jobs, we lower taxes, lower regulations and focus on education.”
Forbes, who appeared to use the debate effectively to pose a contrast with the other two, made a strong defense of free trade. “Protectionism always fails. It gave us the Great Depression.”
Illegal immigration also drew a sharp contrast among the candidates. Buchanan, reiterating his plan to erect a security fence along parts of the border with Mexico, declared that “within six months, I will stop illegal immigration coming into this country cold.”
Earlier, the peripatetic Buchanan came face to face with angry voters.
Arriving in Tucson, Buchanan rode in a parade aboard a covered wagon, wearing a black cowboy hat. But while some cheered, a largely Latino crowd jeered.
“Deport Buchanan!” some shouted. And, “Go, Pat! Go Home!”
“It was a tremendous outpouring of love and affection,” Buchanan joked later.