THE waning momentum of Pat Buchanan's campaign for president is likely to offer some relief for the Bush campaign from a corrosive critic.
But Mr. Buchanan has established himself as a major player - post-election - in the battle to shape the conservative movement that brought Ronald Reagan to power.
He has also raised the stature, many conservatives say, of the White House figure that took him on most directly - Vice President Dan Quayle.
Buchanan was never really viewed as a contender for the 1992 Republican nomination.
But since his peak moment after the New Hampshire primary, "the Buchanan agenda was here to stay," says Jeffrey Bell, a conservative political strategist.
The hard-edged Buchanan swings his sound-bite shillelagh savagely, to the delight of conservatives who feel betrayed by Mr. Bush. But Buchanan's deep skepticism of internationalism, immigration, and open trade represents a departure from the America-as-beacon conservatism of most other movement leaders.
Buchanan was the only one that stepped forward. Other prospects, from former drug czar William Bennett to Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, take jibes for not displaying similar courage.
By running a serious national campaign, Buchanan has built a powerful fund-raising machine. He has the money to launch his own political-action committee or perhaps even a foundation, says Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council.
And to the surprise of many conservatives, Buchanan has mobilized an enthusiastic cadre of young people.
Early in the campaign, about 20 conservative political strategists gathered in Alexandria, Va., and took an informal poll. The consensus was that they would not endorse Buchanan, but they were glad he was running, says Bob Billings, director of the American Conservative Union.
The ACU is one of the few national conservative groups that has endorsed Buchanan. Yet, says Billings, "looking down the road to '96, we really don't see Pat as the one that's going to pick up the Reagan mantle and go with it."
"Buchanan has defined himself in a way that's just not very appealing to very many conservatives," says Jeffrey Eisenach, director of GOPAC, which raises money for Republican House candidates.
Buchanan was the beneficiary of a protest vote against Bush, says Mr. Eisenach. The uncommitted GOP vote is running 25 to 30 percent, he estimates, and Buchanan has been adding only a single-digit margin to that base.
In New Hampshire, in fact, poll data show that Buchanan drew equally well from voters who described themselves as liberal, moderate, or conservative. In Southern states, his advantage was among voters in the toughest economic situations.
"Some people are hungry enough for principle in this country that they're not even listening to what's being said," says Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, suggesting that it is the strength of Buchanan's convictions that draws votes, not the details of what the convictions are.
One of Buchanan's main challengers for leadership of the conservative movement will be Mr. Quayle. Quayle moved to the forefront in recent weeks in the Bush-Quayle campaign effort to confront Buchanan. He is credited with a strong performance that played some role in slowing Buchanan's momentum.
"He has elevated himself very substantially in everyone's eyes," says Eisenach.
Importantly, he avoided provocation and never came down on Buchanan too hard. And the provocations were many, as Buchanan let his political pugilism fly - calling a battle with Quayle "child abuse."
Quayle and Buchanan, both unquestioned movement conservatives, represent different directions for the party. Quayle is nearer the conservatism of Jack Kemp - international in outlook, optimistic, confident of American values.
Buchanan is more concerned with protecting American jobs and values from foreign rivals. He asks, "Who speaks for the Euro-Americans?" and worries that white Americans will become a minority by 2050.
"The threat he poses is in terms of this definition of what it means to be an American," says Terry Eastland, a conservative and resident fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.