WASHINGTON -- Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, Pat Buchanan has announced that he will make another run for the Republican presidential nomination.
It is hard to imagine the free-wheeling television commentator becoming his party's nominee. There are too many other candidates out there with more conventional credentials within the party.
But it would be foolish not to recognize that Buchanan has the potential to influence the shape of the campaign. And for those more conventional Republican candidates, that could be very bad news indeed.
At the very least, so long as he remains a candidate Buchanan can make certain that the divisive issue of abortion rights remains part of the debate within his party. He already has declared himself as unalterably opposed to watering down the plank in previous Republican platforms that called for a flat-out prohibition on abortions. And, lest anyone misunderstand, Buchanan said in a statement announcing the formation of his campaign exploratory committee that "it is time the Republican Party stops backing away from its pro-life platform."
Buchanan may be best known for his speech on "cultural warfare" at the GOP convention in Houston in 1992. But he also may be able to exploit some issues that are not part of the usual right-wing social agenda. For example, he was one of the most visible leaders of the opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and then the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
The operative question about a Buchanan candidacy is whether the following he has developed as a television commentator can be translated into political strength. He is particularly popular with young conservatives who admire his take-no-prisoners style debating issues and playing politics. No one knows, however, how much of a factor such supporters might be in Republican caucuses and primaries early next year.
Or, put another way, the question about Buchanan is simply whether celebrity can be converted into political influence.
Buchanan himself clearly thinks so, largely on the basis of his campaign against then President George Bush for the 1992 nomination. But his performance in that campaign may have been somewhat misleading. The high point obviously was the 37 percent of the vote Buchanan polled against Bush in the New Hampshire primary, a figure that exceeded expectations.
But the pattern of voting in later primaries suggested that Buchanan's success in New Hampshire probably had less to do with his own strength than with the weakness of Bush. In later primaries, the conservative challenger continued to win 30 percent or so of the vote -- whether or not he actively campaigned in those campaigns. The conclusion drawn by political professionals was that Bush had turned off about 30 percent of Republicans to the point at which they wanted to express their displeasure in the one way politicians best understand.
The situation today is quite different. Rather than waiting to send a message to a George Bush, Republicans are focused on what they see as a golden opportunity to defeat a vulnerable incumbent, President Clinton. And these Republicans have alternatives -- such as Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas -- with whom most of the rank-and-file can be quite comfortable.
There is nothing comfortable about Pat Buchanan. In a 30-year career that began with working as a junior aide to Richard M. Nixon and has included stints in the White House under both Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Buchanan never hedged on what he considered matters of principle.
It is that dogged unwillingness to bend with political fashion that has made Pat Buchanan something of a cult hero among young conservatives and among older Republicans most committed to the ideology of the Far Right. In the campaign for the 1996 presidential nomination, it makes him a factor in defining the debate within the party -- and in determining, for better or worse, how the party is viewed from outside its own ranks.