Buchanan constituency curbed by fear factor GOP candidate evokes strong passions among supporters, detractors

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Tommy Kerrigan parked his pickup truck on Elm Street the other day and put a hand-lettered sign in the window that read: "Go Pat Go."

He had heard that Pat Buchanan was leaving his hotel for a run, and he hoped to get his autograph.

"He's my main man," Mr. Kerrigan said. "He's not like those politicians.

"He means what he says, and I'm going to vote for him."

Seated next to him, his wife, Marly Kerrigan, shook her head. "Not in a million years," she said. "He scares me."

The conflict within the Kerrigan family seems to sum up the dilemma of Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative political commentator, as he makes a second run for the Republican presidential nomination.

He is viewed, for better and for worse, as someone who believes exactly what he says.

As a result, he is evoking both more passionate support and more adamant hostility than any of his rivals.

The fear of Mr. Buchanan's intentions appears to be prevailing.

A recent opinion poll of likely voters in the New Hampshire primary Feb. 20 found his "positives" at 20 percent and his "negatives" at 44 percent -- a ratio ordinarily considered politically fatal.

And a national survey found 60 percent of voters saying there was "no chance" they would ever vote for Mr. Buchanan.

The support for the 57-year-old former adviser to Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan is enough to give him respectable numbers -- 10 percent to 15 percent -- in matchups on the primary.

That puts him second or third to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole but usually ahead of such contenders as Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

And he has enough support to compete for money. Last month, he raised $1.3 million, five times as much as Mr. Alexander.

But he enjoys little visible support among party leaders, who see him as a loose cannon with the potential to drive away moderate Republicans and independents.

So his only option is to press on in the hope of going over the heads of the establishment to primary voters.

Like all candidates, Mr. Buchanan has a vision of how this could happen, beginning with his running well in the Louisiana caucuses Feb. 6 -- six days before the Iowa precinct caucuses -- where the only other candidate expected to compete is Mr. Gramm.

"I can't let him have 21 delegates without a fight," Mr. Buchanan said in an interview.

"I've got to make a spunky showing in Louisiana and then a strong showing in Iowa."

If that happened, he said, he would be seen as the prime competitor to Mr. Dole by the time attention focuses on the New Hampshire primary.

And another strong performance here, he said, would set the stage for him to defeat Mr. Dole in Arizona a week later.

Mr. Buchanan acknowledges that he has a big obstacle to overcome in convincing Republican voters that he is not a frightening extremist, a reputation he has developed not only as a candidate but in 30 years of writing newspaper columns, making speeches and appearing on radio and television espousing hard-line conservative ideology.

But, again, he has an answer.

"Everybody gets a chance to clean up their act," he said.

If he does well in the primaries, he said, "we'll get so much attention people will see me in a new light."

But Mr. Buchanan has a long way to go.

"I've been watching this guy on TV for years," said Eugene Beliveau, who runs a small business here, "so it was fun to see what he had to say, but he's too wild for me."

Mr. Buchanan's image was fixed for many Americans during the 1992 campaign.

He exceeded expectations in the primary here by winning 37 percent of the vote against an incumbent Republican president, George Bush, whom he had excoriated for breaking his promise never to raise taxes.

That was the high point, however.

Although Mr. Buchanan continued to win 30 percent to 35 percent of the vote, it became apparent that this happened whether or not he campaigned in a state.

That suggested that there were 30 percent or so of Republicans who wanted to send a message to Mr. Bush that he had better do something about the economy.

But Mr. Buchanan's support, particularly with the religious right, was vocal enough so that party officials felt they had to reward him with a prime-time appearance at the convention in Houston in exchange for his promise to use the occasion to endorse Mr. Bush for re-election.

Mr. Buchanan delivered on that promise.

But he alienated many moderates by defining the election this way: "My friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe and what we stand for as Americans.

"There is a religious war going on in this country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself.

"And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and [Hillary Rodham] Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side."

Mr. Buchanan's views on social questions seem to define him for voters more than such things as his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

When he appeared before about 100 business people recently, heads shook disapprovingly when he said, in reply to a question about abortion rights, that Republicans "cannot abandon our traditional position on these issues."

The implication was that he was not ready to accept anyone on the ticket who supports abortion rights.

His problem may be exacerbated by his writer's penchant for extravagant language. He once defined support for the Persian Gulf war as coming only from "the Israeli defense ministry and its amen corner in the United States."

He once promised to protect Western heritage from being "dumped into some landfill called multiculturalism."

Speaking to the breakfast here, he observed that "American popular culture is in many cases a polluted lake from which Americans are forced to drink."

"He makes me nervous," a woman who listened here said later. "I remember what he said about AIDS and the gays" -- that is, that AIDS might be a divine retribution against homosexuals -- "and that's scary."

The one thing that is clear, however, is that Pat Buchanan is hard to ignore.

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