METAIRIE, La. -- Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan was telling an audience of 200 enthusiastic supporters here the other night why he was in Louisiana, which is getting a cold shoulder from most of the other GOP hopefuls.
He recounted how the others -- except himself, Sen. Phil Gramm and ultra-underdog Alan Keyes -- had signed a pledge in Iowa to boycott Louisiana's February 6 delegate-selecting because Iowa was upset that Louisiana was usurping its traditional role as the state that always begins the process.
"They told me I had 48 hours to sign the pledge," Mr. Buchanan intoned, or risk the wrath of Iowa voters in their February 12 precinct caucuses. "I said, 'Tell them I'm not signing. I am going into Louisiana.' I've been looking for a fight with Phil for a long time, and I'm not going to pass up this chance."
Senator Gramm, from neighboring Texas, was in Louisiana early, winning 72 percent of a state party convention straw poll a year ago. Mr. Buchanan, quoting Gramm strategist Charles Black as saying the senator has all 21 delegates to be selected "in his pocket," declared: "I say no. He's not going to get those 21 delegates. I'm going to pick his pocket."
What all this is about is Mr. Buchanan's hope of giving Senator Gramm a political black eye in Louisiana, undermining his goal of getting an early jump in the 1996 delegate race and becoming the clear alternative to front-running Sen. Bob Dole.
The odds favor Mr. Gramm in Louisiana in light of his early campaigning here. But political observer John Maginnis says the turnout may be as low as 20,000 of the state's 450,000 Republicans in the new and untested caucus process, and Mr. Buchanan's strong appeal to members of the Christian Coalition could pay off. Also, Mr. Buchanan gained statewide publicity the other day by endorsing new GOP Gov. Mike Foster's action ending affirmative-action programs in the state.
Mr. Gramm is running well behind Senator Dole in all polls for the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary February 20. He obviously hopes success in Louisiana will sustain him through these bumps on the campaign trail en route to a slew of Southern primaries in March.
Under the new process here, Republicans will be able to vote for slates of delegates at 42 polling places around the state, with the top three vote-getters in each of the seven congressional districts selected as delegates. While it is conceivable that voters might split slates, says state party official Rhett Davis, it's considered unlikely because most voters participating will be committed to one candidate and actively courted by his campaign.
Jim Owens, Senator Gramm's campaign manager in Louisiana, insists that Mr. Buchanan is diverting heavy resources from Iowa challenge Mr. Gramm here. Both candidates are running radio ads in areas of concentrated Republican registration in a campaign that will require unusual turnout drives, because the process is new and there will be so few polling places.
As a result, the participants are likely to be party activists or groups like the Christian Coalition willing to make an uncommon effort to back their man. In any such contest, Mr. Buchanan's fiery stump style can be a distinct advantage.
lTC There is some speculation here that Mr. Buchanan's modest objective will be to win three to six of the 21 delegates so that he can declare a moral victory, much as he did in New Hampshire in 1992, when he won 37 percent of the vote against then President George Bush.
Ed Renwick, a veteran pollster at Loyola University, predicts a very low turnout. "It's not a big deal for the people of Louisiana," he says. "It's almost a joke. It's much ado about nothing."
That, however, is not the attitude being taken by Messrs. Gramm and Buchanan. Each has an objective here that transcends Louisiana. Senator Gramm sees the February 6 voting as a transfusion for his lagging campaign. And Mr. Buchanan told his cheering backers here the other night that "if Pat Buchanan comes out of Louisiana a winner," television crews from all over the country and foreign capitals will descend on the state.
That may be a gross overstatement, but such an outcome certainly would poke a hole in Mr. Gramm's balloon, and give Mr. Buchanan much to brag about in the Iowa and New Hampshire tests to follow.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.