WHEN SEVERAL thousand Teamsters rallied at the foot of the Capitol this week against permanent normal trade relations (NTR) status for China, among those awaiting his turn to speak was Pat Buchanan, the Republican-turned-Reform Party presidential candidate.
A local union member came up and offered him his shiny blue Teamsters jacket. Mr. Buchanan slipped off his own gray suit coat, handed it to an aide and slipped on the union garb. Then he proceeded to piggy back on the labor rally to make what started out as a tirade against free trade with China and ended up a pitch of sorts for his White House bid.
"Right now," he said, "the Chinese Communists sell us 40 percent of their exports and they take 1 percent of ours -- the same percentage they took in 1900, a hundred years ago. Who's negotiating these deals? And what are they using that money for? They're persecuting Christians, they're persecuting folks like [Chinese dissident] Harry Wu, they're using that money to buy weapons to threaten our friends in Taiwan" as well as the United States itself.
"You know something," he went on, "if I were there in the White House, and they came into my office and said, 'We want permanent NTR,' I'd tell them: 'You stop persecuting Christians and you stop threatening our country, or you guys have sold your last pair of chopsticks anywhere in the United States of America!' "
The Teamster crowd loved it. Warming to its cheers, Mr. Buchanan promised that rather than have U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky negotiating trade deals with China, "if I get there [the Oval Office] it won't be Charlene Barshefsky sitting down in Beijing, it'll be Jim Hoffa!"
Mr. Buchanan's political battlefield promotion of the Teamsters president, standing on the speaker's platform behind him, really ignited the crowd. "Hoffa! Hoffa!" The shouts came up to greet the Reform Party candidate.
Mr. Buchanan decided to quit while he was ahead, and after a few more rousing words, left to thunderous applause. He doffed the Teamsters jacket, returned it to its owner, slipped on his suit jacket and waded through a throng of glad-handers.
Thus is the presidential campaign of the man who elected to leave his lifelong home in the Republican Party for this free-lance bid. He is a guerrilla political warrior living off the land, seizing whatever opportunities offer themselves to get his message out among like-minded Americans. This was not a Buchanan rally nor was there any way of knowing how many of those cheering Teamsters might vote for him in November, but he turned it into one for a few minutes.
While he continues to take forums where he can find them, Mr. Buchanan is working hard to get the Reform Party on the ballot in all 50 states -- the task set for anyone who wants to be considered the party's nominee. With Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and multimillionaire playboy Donald Trump having taken themselves out of contention, and party founder Ross Perot expected to do the same, Mr. Buchanan appears to have the inside track by default. With the nomination comes $12.6 million in federal funds, which isn't close to the $65.5 million Al Gore and George W. Bush will get, but it's not bad for an experienced guerrilla warrior like Mr. Buchanan.
His prime objective once he has the nomination, to be decided at the party convention in Long Beach in August, will be to get into the debates with Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush in the fall. He says he thinks he can have 15 percent support in the major polls by then, one yardstick for admission set by the Commission on Presidential Debates. But the commission will decide whether he has "a realistic chance of winning" (another of its yardsticks), and that will be tough.
In that regard, Mr. Buchanan says, he hopes the pressure of public and news media attention will get the Federal Election Commission to intercede on his behalf, just as such attention generated by John McCain in the New York primary earlier this year finally got Gov. George Pataki to open ballot access to him.
Meanwhile, he keeps living off the land -- and keeping his powder dry.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).