HOUSTON -- This year's thundering voice on the right, news media commentator turned presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, gave the most conservative elements of his Republican Party plenty of red meat to chew on here last night.
He took out after the conservatives' favorite whipping boy, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, asking, "How many other 60-year-olds do you know who still go to Florida for spring break?" He railed against "the failed liberalism of the 1960s and '70s" and those who engage in the "cheap political rhetoric" of politicians who build themselves up "by tearing America down."
Defending his hero, Ronald Reagan, he chastised "the carping critics who sat on the sidelines of history, jeering at one of the great statesmen of our time."
But he also had positive words for his primary foe, President Bush, applauding his military record and calling him a "patriot and war hero," as opposed to Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton. "When Bill Clinton's turn came in Vietnam," he said, "he sat up in a dormitory in Oxford, England, and figured out how to dodge the draft."
Most significantly, he called on his "Buchanan Brigades" to fall in behind Mr. Bush. "This party is our home," he told them. "This party is where we belong."
Mr. Buchanan's speech is widely viewed as a down payment on another candidacy in 1996, but he is certain to have plenty of competition in the GOP's right wing to shape the future of conservatism in the party.
Mr. Buchanan won a leg up among the most extreme conservatives for 1996 by virtue of being the one Republican on the right willing to challenge directly what many of them believe to be the sabotaging of the Reagan revolution by President Bush.
While other Republicans deplored the television commentator's attacks on Mr. Bush in the New Hampshire and other early primaries, like-minded conservatives cheered a candidacy that was a throwback to the 1964 Barry Goldwater pull-no-punches effort that preached that extremism was no vice in the service of just causes.
The same objective that drove the Goldwater forces in 1964 -- to seize the party from more moderate elements even at the cost of losing the election -- drives the Buchanan loyalists, to the point that some embrace the notion that it will be better to lose with Mr. Bush and then rebuild uncompromising conservatism anew from the ashes.
Others on the right, however, fear that conservatism, even as represented by President Bush, will not be able to survive a defeat in November and that any dreams of putting it back on the track of the Reagan years will be dashed by a long reign of Democratic leadership.
One conservative Republican who holds that view, political consultant Ed Rollins, who briefly ran the Ross Perot independent pre-candidacy, warns that the Reagan conservative legacy has been so dissipated by Mr. Bush that there is little prospect that the Reagan revolution can be resurrected once Mr. Bush, win or lose, passes from the political scene.
Mr. Rollins contends that there actually has been no new conservative agenda since 1982, upon completion of Mr. Reagan's first burst of action in sharply cutting taxes, reordering priorities to shrink Democratic social programs and freeing up private enterprise from government regulation.
"It's sort of been maintenance ever since," he said yesterday.
The prospect is remote, Mr. Rollins says, that there is any one Republican on the scene who can through the force of his leadership and message pull the conservative movement together the way Mr. Reagan did in the late 1970s.
For this reason, the shape of Republican conservatism's future does not figure to be left to any single individual, including Mr. Buchanan, who rates no mention at all from Mr. Rollins. And because Mr. Bush is the party's nominee and Mr. Buchanan has vowed to play the good soldier through the election, the redefining of the party that most conservatives want is not in the cards until after November.
Regardless of the outcome, Mr. Rollins says he looks for the effort at redefinition to get under way long before the 1996 election, breaking into factions. One, he suggests, will be led by doctrinaire economic supply-siders such as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp. Another will be represented, he says, by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, reflecting a more traditional conservatism.
It's hard for a party to look past a presidential election for salvation. But that attitude seems to be in the minds of many conservatives who feel that the happy ride of the Reagan years is coming inevitably to an end and that they'd better start thinking about where they go from here.