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UNDER the lash of Pat Buchanan, the Republican hopefuls are diving into economic populism. For some, it's an icy plunge, chilled by the skepticism of New Hampshire's voters.

But it's invigorating for the campaign. This presidential election year, like past ones, will likely turn on economic matters. And the problems on which Mr. Buchanan is training his rhetorical blunderbuss are key: drooping income among the American middle class, widespread corporate layoffs, and trade.

His populist fire veers wide of the mark, however, when it comes to solutions. Buchanan's calls to exit international trade agreements and bar the borders harks back to 1930s Fortress America thinking. Backing out of today's global economy wouldn't save the jobs of American workers. It would shrivel long-term job prospects by shrinking the market for US goods.

The other Republicans, notably Bob Dole and Lamar Alexander, have the responsibility of presenting saner options. Mr. Dole has recently started echoing Buchanan's broadsides at a corporate sector that cheers climbing stock prices as it lops off workers. This is dicey ground for a mainstream Republican with strong ties to some of the corporate giants that underwrite GOP campaigns. But Dole can help his cause by giving voters a clear statement of the interrelation of long-term job outlooks and vigorous trade.

He, and Mr. Alexander, can also throw in their versions of what government - yes, that object of GOP scorn - can do to help workers prepare for future employment opportunities and to help companies take a hand in that. Tax incentives are a big part of that discussion, which should give the mainstreamers a chance to counter flat-tax zealotry.

While they're at it, they have to fit deficit reduction into their vision of a brighter economic future - not as a fanatical goal that eclipses everything else, but as a crucial element.

If the Republican moderates - not a bad label, despite everyone's effort to grab the ''conservative'' tag - don't stake out this ground, someone else will. He's sitting in the White House now - smiling, no doubt.

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