FOR a few heady weeks in the early spring of 1992, Pat Buchanan was jarring the Republican establishment trying to reelect its president.
Today the stand-and-punch, apologies-to-nobody, America-first conservative announces in New Hampshire that he is trying again to be the Republican nominee for president.
He will be, he asserts, the only economic nationalist in the race for president, jabbing his stinging phrases against NAFTA, GATT, and the bailout of the Mexican peso.
He calls for defending US borders against ''an invasion of illegal aliens,'' outlawing foreign aid, outlawing racial quotas, and rolling back federal taxes as well as federal power versus the states.
Mr. Buchanan does not aim to be a unifying voice in the volatile, highly charged politics of the mid-1990s. Not when he sees ''a war on for the hearts and minds of our children.''
''It is a war for the soul of America,'' he wrote in his final newspaper column last month, ''and it will not end in a brokered peace.''
Buchanan's announcement today, however, is not churning up any whitecaps among Republicans. Party operatives and consultants do not expect him to ever register double-digit support among Republican voters. Nor do they expect him to draw enough primary support to change the arithmetic between other candidates.
GOP's rightward shift
As Buchanan sees it, the Republican Party has absorbed much of his 1992 message. Certainly, his hard-line views about illegal immigration, against affirmative action, and the importance of cultural conservatism are closer to mainstream now.
But better-established candidates, especially Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, are now carrying much of the hard-core conservative message that Buchanan touted in 1992. ''The whole country has moved over toward those issues,'' says one Republican consultant, going nameless because of ties to another campaign. ''But other candidates put a kinder face on them.''
In 1992, he jumped late into the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, but in the early primaries he was scoring between 20 and 30 percent of the GOP vote against a sitting Republican president. And while there was little spontaneous enthusiasm behind the workmanlike Bush reelection campaign, the media commentator and former Nixon speechwriter drew a ''Buchanan's army'' of young enthusiasts.
But his strong showing in New Hampshire and the other early primaries began to appear hollow when South Dakota voted, without Buchanan on the ballot, and Bush lost the same 30 percent of the vote he had been losing to Buchanan elsewhere -- but this time to ''none of the above.''
The Buchanan vote began to look even more like merely an anyone-but-Bush vote when he decided to wage an all-out campaign in Georgia, using an attack on federal arts grants to homosexual photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Faded from view
Georgia Republicans were not galvanized. Instead his showing slipped, and he faded from the picture.
Buchanan critics are most concerned when they see his nationalism becoming tribal.
Conservative writer William F. Buckley Jr. concluded, reluctantly, in a 1992 National Review article that Buchanan was an anti-Semite. Buchanan has written columns questioning aspects of the holocaust and against prosecuting accused Nazi war criminals.
Nobody could accuse Buchanan of being a cultural relativist.
On a recent Larry King television show, he reiterated his philospohical starting point: ''I believe that Christianity is the truth that makes men free, and I believe that Western culture and Western civilization are the greatest this world has ever produced, bar none.''
Republican pollster Fred Steeper says that there is fertile ground in the Republican primaries for a culturally conservative message, but that Buchanan is associated more with his America First nationalism that is similar to Ross Perot's message of economic protectionism and avoidance of foreign entanglements.
His message is not very effective in Republican primaries, says Mr. Steeper, because most of the voters it speaks to -- basically Perot voters -- are outside both parties.