WASHINGTON -- Patrick J. Buchanan is pulling off the campaign trail, but he's not quite ready to turn in his pitchfork.
After weeks of semi-seclusion, Mr. Buchanan surfaced yesterday announce that he had abandoned plans to compete for votes in next week's Pennsylvania primary, the biggest delegate prize left on the Republican nomination calendar. He also said he isn't taking any steps toward running as a third-party candidate.
But Mr. Buchanan called a report that he was formally dropping out of the GOP presidential race "grossly exaggerated."
His decision to cancel eight days of campaigning in Pennsylvania, he indicated, was an effort to dispel criticism of him as a spoiler and a concession to the fact that Sen. Bob Dole has built "an insurmountable lead" in the Republican contest.
"We're going to play this week by week by week," he said of his plans for the rest of the primary season, which runs through early June.
With that, the conservative commentator joined Alan L. Keyes of Maryland and Rep. Robert K. Dornan of California as Republican presidential hopefuls who have been mathematically eliminated from the '96 race but refuse to stop calling themselves candidates.
Mr. Buchanan said he's determined to carry his effort through the Republican convention in August, in hopes of pressuring Mr. Dole and the party to move closer to his views in favor of sealing America's borders to immigrants and protecting American workers against foreign competition, and opposing any softening the party's anti-abortion stance.
To that end, Mr. Buchanan called a news conference yesterday to urge Republicans in Congress to oppose China's most-favored-nation trade status, a step that Mr. Dole is not prepared to take.
In sharp contrast to his Dole-bashing at the height of the primary season, however, Mr. Buchanan pulled his punches yesterday and avoided denouncing Mr. Dole for his past support of trade preferences for China.
Instead, he focused his pressure on President Clinton and on Republicans in general. "This is not any effort to damage Senator Dole," he insisted.
Several dozen reporters and TV cameras were on hand for the Buchanan event -- some, perhaps, drawn by the prospect that he was dropping out of the race, as yesterday's Washington Times reported he would do.
The size of the press pack pointed up one reason why Mr. Buchanan would like to keep his candidacy alive. As he himself noted, the news media, and by extension, the public, pays scant attention to former presidential candidates.
"I'm not sure my friend Lamar is exerting much influence" these days, he said of former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who, like Sen. Phil Gramm, publisher Steve Forbes and other defeated rivals, folded his campaign and endorsed Mr. Dole.
Another factor is money, which would dry up if the campaign ended.
His sister and campaign manager, Angela "Bay" Buchanan, said contributions are coming in at the rate of about a half-million dollars a month and should continue to do so, especially if Mr. Buchanan decides to go ahead with a plan to air what she described as a new wave of "issue-oriented" campaign commercials.
Mr. Buchanan intends to make campaign appearances in states that will hold primaries next month, including Indiana and North Carolina, she added.
The decision to pass up the Pennsylvania primary was designed to send a message that the campaign is now concentrating on shaping the Republican platform. "We're in a different phase xTC now," she said. "We're not in this to just take on Bob Dole now."
Peace talks between the Dole and Buchanan camps have yet to get off the ground, and Mr. Buchanan's role, if any, at the party's convention in San Diego remains to be determined. In 1992, he negotiated a prominent speech-making slot for himself, and he presumably would like to get a similar one this time.
Mr. Buchanan, who has toyed off and on with a third-party run, said he would send a letter to 140,000 contributors next week, asking their advice about whether to take his candidacy outside the Republican Party.
But, he added, "if the question is, 'Are we now pursuing a third-party option?' the answer is no. Each week that goes by makes it less realistic that it can be effective."
The Dole campaign reacted cautiously to the new Buchanan. In a statement, Nelson Warfield, the Senate majority leader's press secretary, said it was "encouraging that Pat turned his guns on Bill Clinton today."
Pub Date: 4/18/96