Bush's Campaign Gets Shove From Buchanan's Challenge
President kept from focusing on Democratic opponents
WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT Bush has mobilized his campaign in the week since the New Hampshire primary in vigorous reaction to Pat Buchanan's new momentum.
The vitality that New Hampshire gave the Buchanan challenge could actually be an advantage to the Bush campaign, sharpening the competitive edge of a late-forming team while the stakes are still relatively low.
But Mr. Buchanan is also costing Mr. Bush. His lavish Bush-bashing took a toll on the president's image in New Hampshire, according to Bush campaign aides. And the longer Buchanan endures, the longer before Bush can focus on running against Democrats.
Bush plans to campaign personally in at least half a dozen states in the coming weeks. Which ones and how much depends on where Buchanan campaigns, according to Charles Black, a senior adviser on the Bush-Quayle team.
The decision to put the president on the road was nearly instantaneous. On Tuesday morning of the New Hampshire primary, the weekly White House schedule showed a routine week of business in the Oval Office.
But about the time that Bush was seeing the earliest survey data suggesting that he might actually lose to Buchanan that day, the White House produced new daily schedules.
On Thursday, Buchanan warned he would make an issue out of federal grants to controversial artists under the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), "the upholstered playpen of the arts-and-crafts auxiliary of the Eastern liberal establishment," in Buchanan's luxuriant bluntness.
On Friday, White House Chief of Staff Sam Skinner told NEA chairman John Frohnmayer to resign. Administration officials have publicly denied any connection between Buchanan and the forcing out of Mr. Frohnmayer. But the move pleased many on the cultural right, who are Buchanan's primary market.
New Hampshire gave Buchanan the momentum to carry his campaign South. New Hampshire is followed by 13 Republican primaries in three weeks, culminating in Super Tuesday, March 10. Buchanan is staking out the March 3 Georgia primary as his next stand.
The Bush team tried to deal Buchanan a knockout blow in New Hampshire and failed, says Eddie Mahe, a prominent Republican strategist. If they had held him to 30 percent, instead of 37 percent, he would no longer be taken seriously.
"Now they have to deal with him another few weeks," he says. The Republican Party may not be able to unify behind a single candidate much sooner than the Democrats, he adds.
In 1984, when President Reagan was the incumbent running for reelection without primary opposition, "every dollar and every second was spent on defeating the Democrats," says Mr. Mahe. "Right now, nobody in the White House is thinking about the general election." Instead they are thinking about Super Tuesday and countering Buchanan's charges in the culturally conservative South.
"I think this will do them a world of good," says Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University. He compares the Buchanan challenge to spring training for the Bush-Quayle team, forcing them to "sharpen and professionalize their operation" while the nomination is not really at stake.
The Bush campaign leadership is talented, he says, but lacks anyone who has actually run a presidential campaign before. The leading strategist is Robert Teeter, a Michigan-based pollster. Mr. Teeter works closely every day with White House Chief of Staff Skinner to mesh their message and operation.
They are working to promote the president's economic growth plan, but that message is overshadowed by the attention to the race against Buchanan. On Bush's trip to Tennessee, he talked about research and development and its importance to the economy. The news coverage focused on his responses to the Buchanan vote in New Hampshire.
"The principal mission of the president is to go out and sell his economic program with an eye toward getting public to pressure Congress to pass it by the March 20 deadline," Charles Black said at a Monitor breakfast on Friday.
But the distinction between the White House growth plan and the congressional growth plan will be lost on voters, says Mahe. "They won't even know there's a tax bill."
The danger is that Congress will act by passing a bill that includes a tax cut for middle-income voters, and Bush will have to veto it. This could weaken even further his claim to the traditional Republican mantle as the party of low taxes.
Buchanan is certainly working to drive a wedge between Bush and low taxes. Bush campaign officials believe that Bush dropped in New Hampshire surveys in response to ads Buchanan ran accusing Bush of backing away from his promise of a $500-per-child tax credit, says James Lake, a high-level adviser.
The clearest theme in the Bush campaign now is that Buchanan and his charges can no longer go unanswered.