YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio - Pat Buchanan, having failed with his imitation of a gun-toting cowpoke in Arizona and as a son of the Old South across Dixie, is now playing the redeemer of the Rust Belt, where he hopes his colorful harangue against foreign trade competition will lubricate his creaking presidential campaign.
On the surface, there is no better place to take the message. This old steel town is a skeleton of its former self, with many large plants shut down, block after block of abandoned buildings and stores, and a downtown that often looks as if it is under an evacuation order.
At the old Youngstown Steel Door Co. here, Mr. Buchanan cited the firm's diversification as its key to recovery and vowed "to make places like Youngstown booming again." While he was at it in this Democratic stronghold, he shouted: "A lot of you Democrats and Independents never voted Republican and never intended to vote Republican," but "your interests are my interests. That's what got me in this campaign and why I'm going all the way to San Diego and open up this party."
Some workers at the plant aren't going to be moved. "I like him on 'Crossfire' but I'm a Democrat all the way," said Bob Nendsick, a machinist. Another, Rich Barney, the machine shop manager, said: "I think we should have free trade with the rest of the world. It's a big world now. Everybody in the world is competing. We've got to be competitive with them."
But another worker, Fred Whitacre, said of the candidate's trade stand, "I feel the way he does, about taking jobs away from America."
Mr. Buchanan's decision to kick off the Rust Belt phase of his campaign in the Youngstown area was greeted with some surprise by state party officials, because it is so heavily Democratic. He might have been expected to concentrate on the conservative southern part of the state.
But State Sen. Gary Suhldolnik, Buchanan's chief supporter among Ohio elected officials, notes that to vote in the Republican primary, a Democrat merely must to ask for a GOP ballot. In 1980 and 1984, many blue-collar Democrats voted for Ronald Reagan.
Ohio Republicans will pick 67 delegates next Tuesday, three in each of the state's 19 congressional districts on a winner-take-all basis, and 10 more for the statewide winner. Mr. Suhldolnik says Mr. Buchanan's best hope is to pick off a district or two in
blue-collar areas like Youngstown and Toledo.
A presence at the convention
The objective now is to give him some presence at the national convention to bolster whatever influence he can exert there on the party agenda. Tom Piatak, a lawyer running the campaign here, says "All over northern Ohio people see the effects from foreign competition. It's not an abstraction to them. There are going to be a lot of Democrats crossing over for Pat."
Mr. Buchanan won the New Hampshire primary with his pitch against free trade. In the Rust Belt, too, workers are fearful of job and wage loss. But the defeats he has suffered since then, while taking no bombast out of his delivery, have seemed to take a toll on his judgment.
Mr. Buchanan began the immolation of his own image in Arizona, dressing up in exaggerated Western garb, waving a shotgun joyously over his head. He defended "Southern values" and "Dixie" during the Junior and Super Tuesday primaries. He even agreed to don an outlandish Uncle Sam hat handed to him in Oklahoma, immediately captured by the television cameras. Such antics threaten to convert his once-serious campaign effort into a caricature.
A surprising victory over Bob Dole in Republican county conventions in Missouri last weekend gave Mr. Buchanan something to crow about, but it did nothing to stop the front runner's sprint toward the nomination. It appears, however, to have stiffened Mr. Buchanan's determination to persevere until the Republican convention in August, as he promised at the plant here. It bolsters his supporters at the same time. "We're staying with him because we believe in his message," Mr. Suhldolnik says.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 3/13/96