REPUBLICANS have a favorite political game they've often played over the years.
It might be called, m more conservative than you are." It's going on now in the primaries where Patrick Buchanan is calling George Bush a counterfeit conservative.
Political ideology has become a critical and, perhaps, decisive issue in the GOP contests - particularly in the Southern states.
Therefore it seemed relevant to a score of Washington journalists to climb out of bed at daybreak in order to have breakfast with House minority whip Newt Gingrich and hear what he has to say on the subject.
Mr. Gingrich possesses particularly strong conservative credentials, and he was, as usual, quite animated. "No, no!" he almost shouted in reply to an early question about whether Mr. Buchanan had become the leader of the conservative movement.
"Buchanan," said Gingrich, "is the leader of the right-wing reaction against Washington ... this is a protest candidate in the middle of a recession ... Buchanan has a mean-spirited, narrow kind of an approach...."
Some liberals in the House view Gingrich as being a bit mean, too. No doubt about it: Gingrich and Buchanan can both be tough alley fighters. "Put them up against each other in the same alley," one reporter quipped, "and I think I'd put my money on Newt."
Once on the subject of Buchanan, Gingrich was ready to carry on with an extended monologue:
"The fact is," he said, "I like Pat Buchanan." The journalists around the table leaned forward. They know that this is what politicians say just before they light into someone.
"As a commentator," Gingrich continued, "Pat is fun in the same way that John Madden is fun. And he represents generally an anti-Wall Street viewpoint.
"Buchanan's view of the ethnic mix of America is explicitly and totally wrong; I would vehemently repudiate it. Buchanan's view of protectionism and isolationism is explicitly wrong, and I would repudiate it.
"He does not represent the future of the conservative movement. He represents a personality.
"I don't in any way take him seriously for 1996. Because once you examine Buchanan and not ask the question, 'Do you want to send George Bush a signal?' but, instead, ask the question, 'Is this a future that America is capable of achieving?' I don't think there is 8 percent of the American people who would consider his vision of the future one that is workable."
Hardly pausing for breath, Gingrich continued his critique of Buchanan's ideology:
"Quayle is a more authentic conservative in the Reagan tradition than Buchanan. Quayle represents economic growth. Quayle represents international commitment toward world markets. Quayle represents a responsible, pro-freedom position.
"If you had to choose between Buchanan and Quayle as to who represents Reaganism, it would be 90 percent Quayle and 10 percent Buchanan."
"Yes," said a reporter, "but how about Bush's conservatism? After the election, will he revert to Rockefeller Republicanism, as some are charging?"
"Bush," said Gingrich, "has never been a Rockefeller Republican. I have been. In 1968 I was for Rockefeller because he was the most pro-integrationist Republican candidate....
"Bush has never been in the liberal wing of the Republican Party. He always has been part of the conservative party in the broad sense. He is northeast moderate in style. But he has been fairly consistently a part of the conservative wing of the party."
Besides his assessment of Buchanan, President Bush, and Vice President Dan Quayle, Gingrich revealed an emerging caution among Republican leaders about predicting victory for Bush in the fall. He still sees Bush winning. But he is not at all sure.
"We don't have anticommunism automatically holding our coalition together," he pointed out. "We have a very weak economy ... I think there is a significant, real danger that we could lose the election."
The previous morning that highly respected GOP analyst, John Sears, was even gloomier when he addressed the same group. If the election were held today, he said, Bush would lose.
And even if the economy moved up, Mr. Sears didn't seem too bullish about Bush, who, he believes, simply hasn't made it clear to the voters what he really stands for.