PATRICK BUCHANAN admits he has an uphill battle against George Bush in this month's Republican primary, but he could succeed at one of his major goals: Driving down the nation's confidence in the president.
The man everyone calls "Pat" minces no words when he attacks Mr. Bush's record in office.
"George Bush is yesterday," he told one New Hampshire audience. "I don't think in his heart, George Bush is a Ronald Reagan conservative. I think he is basically a big-government man."
On TV, Mr. Buchanan has pounded that message home. He has saturated the airwaves here for days with 30-second commercials that show Bush shouting the famous words, "Read my lips! No new taxes!"
Buchanan's message is that Bush, for "pragmatic" reasons, broke his tax promise in the 1990 budget compromise with Congress, and pushed through "one of the biggest tax increases in history," in Buchanan's words.
All this has begun to bite. The Manchester Union-Leader, the state's largest newspaper, reports that the undecided vote in the Feb. 18 Republican primary has risen to nearly 30 percent. Bush still leads, according to the Union-Leader's informal survey, by approximately 46 percent to 22 percent, but public uncertainty is growing.
Buchanan's strategy, like any underdog's, is to chip away at Bush's support, pulling the president well below 50 percent, then rally the undecided voters to the challenger's side in the closing days of the campaign.
Buchanan's feisty style has attracted people like Kim Fitzgerald of Nashua. Explaining why she will probably vote for Buchanan, Ms. Fitzgerald says:
"I have a feeling that he is the true conservative. You know where he stands. There's no wishy-washiness there. [Bush] reneged on the tax pledge.... I'm just concerned we might always be looking over our shoulder to see what Bush might renege on next."
Another Nashua Republican voter, Patty Bovay, supported Bush in 1988, but remains undecided today. She says: ve always liked Bush. But things have changed a lot in the last three years. At first I thought 30 percent was the best Buchanan could hope for. But I have heard from a lot of sources that there are a lot of people mad at Bush. People would like to get someone in there who is not part of the system."
Still, Buchanan has his critics. At soda fountains and political rallies, one hears complaints that Buchanan says only what he is against, not what he is for. During the past week, Buchanan has tried to rectify that by spelling out a tough, conservative economic program to shake up Washington. As he explains it, Buchanan would:
* Put a two-year moratorium on new federal regulations that are hurting business.
* Freeze federal salaries, hiring, and spending programs.
* Cut the pay of the president by up to $100,000, while rolling back the recent congressional pay increase by 50 percent.
* Cut capital-gains taxes on the wealthy in half to 14 percent, while reducing the tax to zero for those in lower and middle-income brackets.
* Cut middle-class taxes and support investment tax credits for business as well as research and development credits.
Buchanan says Bush already has responded to his program. The president, for example, has come out for a 90-day moratorium on federal regulations. He has also gotten tougher on trade issues, as Buchanan demanded.
Buchanan's most important impact, however, may be the lowering of public esteem for Bush, who already is sagging in public polls. While Democrats running for president have hit Bush hard, no one has directed political fire at the president with greater elan than Buchanan.
Buchanan knows Bush well. He worked in the White House with him during President Reagan's tenure. He tells audiences here, essentially, that Bush is a man without a solid core of beliefs. As he put it in several recent conversations with voters:
"Bush's ideas are timid."
"I think that Mr. Bush is a man who became president not to do something, but to be president."
"Mr. Bush's State of the Union message ... was a total bust. It was a rag-bag of gimmicks."
"This is really a campaign ... for the heart and soul of our party. Mr. Bush ... has been the biggest spender in history.... He believes in this gauzy New World Order. He travels all over the world trying to pursue it.... We will put America first."
"Mr. Bush is a pragmatist. He's an in-box president, and he's a man who will try to take this view and that view and try to put them together into an amalgam. The problem is: What does a pragmatist do when pragmatism doesn't work? ... They tend to flounder."
Meanwhile, Buchanan has reworked Bush's tax slogan. The Buchanan version:
"Read my lips. No second term."