DES MOINES, Iowa -- In the aftermath of Patrick J. Buchanan's upset victory in the Louisiana caucuses, the focus of the Republican presidential race shifted abruptly yesterday from taxes to conservative social issues.
"The real choice for social conservatives and right-to-lifers is right here," Mr. Buchanan said at a news conference yesterday in Des Moines.
Sen. Phil Gramm, whose once-high-flying candidacy is now struggling, said he would quit the race unless he finished in the top three Monday in the Iowa caucuses, the first major test of all the candidates' strength.
"I think it is clear that if I don't get first, second or third [in Iowa], that that is going to knock me out of this race," the senator from Texas acknowledged to reporters.
Mr. Buchanan, whose chances of edging out Mr. Gramm appear to have sharply improved in recent days, said the Republican presidential contest was "coming down to a three-person race" between himself, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Steve Forbes, the multimillionaire publisher. Mr. Buchanan urged conservatives to unite behind him.
"The argument against me was that 'he cannot win.' They can't keep saying that when I keep winning," he said.
Besides losing to Mr. Buchanan on Tuesday, Mr. Gramm may have lost more ground here by his failure to return to Washington that same day for a key Senate vote on the farm bill. An attempt to end debate on the bill failed by a single vote; the two other senators in the Republican race, Mr. Dole of Kansas and Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, left the campaign trail to be in Washington for the vote.
Mr. Gramm, who was campaigning in Iowa and Louisiana on Tuesday, was criticized yesterday by Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad, a Dole supporter, for missing the Senate action. Other Republicans said the Gramm campaign would be hurt by the episode.
To try to contain the political damage, Mr. Gramm phoned a farm radio program to defend his actions; he called the Senate vote a ploy by Mr. Dole to embarrass him and said it would have no real effect on the timing of final congressional action on the farm bill.
Despite Mr. Gramm's absence, the Republican-led Senate voted yesterday to revamp federal farm programs and phase out a system that has linked farm prices and government subsidies.
Mr. Buchanan's surprising victory in Louisiana, a contest Mr. Gramm had predicted he would sweep, took the spotlight away from Mr. Forbes and his flat tax and focused it instead on the social issues, particularly abortion, that are at the heart of the Gramm-Buchanan showdown.
Exit polls showed that Mr. Buchanan owed his margin of victory in Louisiana to loyal support from religious conservatives, an ominous sign for Mr. Gramm. Both men have been battling for the backing of Iowa's large conservative religious community, which is expected to cast upward of one-fourth of the caucus vote.
Until now, the support of social and religious conservatives, and especially Iowa's large anti-abortion movement, has been splintered among several candidates, including Mr. Dole, Mr. Gramm, Mr. Buchanan and Alan L. Keyes, the former Maryland senatorial candidate and radio talk show host.
Mr. Buchanan said he thought he would pick up a lot of undecided voters among religious conservatives because of his "stunning upset victory" in Louisiana. "It could not come at a better time than now, when people are making up their minds," he said.
He said that, along with social issues, he would spend the last days of the campaign here highlighting the differences in trade policies between himself and his opponents, to try to attract working-class Democrats and independents.
"That's the core of our campaign," said Mr. Buchanan, an opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). "We're not going to walk away from it."
Mr. Gramm, at a noontime rally in the rotunda of the state Capitol, served up free hot dogs, soft drinks and hard-edged rhetoric to a vocal crowd of supporters. He called for an end to racial preferences in hiring and education, government set-asides for members of minority groups, and welfare benefits for immigrants and unwed teen-age mothers.
Gramm on abortion
Calling the 1.5 million abortions performed each year "a national disgrace," Mr. Gramm vowed, if elected, to cut off funding "for abortion on demand and those who advocate it" on the day he takes office.
Iowa is traditionally where presidential campaigns begin. But this year, seemingly minor events in other states -- a straw vote last week in Alaska and the first-ever Louisiana presidential caucuses -- have given Iowans new factors to think about when many are trying to make up their minds about whom to support.
Fight for third
According to the latest public and private polls, as well as the assessment of Republican politicians in Iowa, Mr. Gramm is in a close fight for third place with Mr. Buchanan and Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor. Mr. Dole, who won here eight years ago, is considered the favorite, and Mr. Forbes is thought to be in second place.
Assessments of the candidates' strength are complicated by the enormous investment that Mr. Forbes has made in TV and radio advertising. Traditionally, grass-roots organizing has been key to success in caucus states like Iowa.
By that yardstick, Mr. Gramm should be in good shape. His campaign organization is rated second to Mr. Dole's; back in August, it propelled Mr. Gramm into a tie with Mr. Dole in a nonbinding straw poll in Ames, Iowa.
But Mr. Gramm has failed to capitalize on that early success. The vote in Louisiana, which most of the Republican candidates boycotted out of deference to Iowa's desire to be the first caucus state, had been promoted by Mr. Gramm as a decisive test of strength in the South, the party's national base.
As recently as Tuesday morning, the senator was predicting victory, and news that he had lost apparently came as a shock. When Mr. Gramm heard it, on a flight between Shreveport and Baton Rouge, his face grew ashen, according to one of those aboard the senator's campaign plane.