Buchanan's Message Catches on Like Arizona Brush Fire
Grass-roots coalitions and GOP contender's 'run-and-gun' campaign strategy work well
PHOENIX — IT'S sunrise and the beginning of another long day on the campaign trail with maverick Pat Buchanan. Outside a motel, he stops to talk strategy, thinking out loud as he plots his next moves in South Carolina and Georgia. ''Momentum becomes much more important and organization diminishes,'' he says. ''It's free form. It's run and gun.''
But what is his realistic goal? ''Our objective is to win this on the first ballot,'' Mr. Buchanan retorts, a devilish smile spreading lines around his eyes.
In a matter of weeks, the talk- show host turned candidate has gone from leading a protest movement to making a serious bid for the GOP nomination. And he's doing it with a tight organization that is outmaneuvering his more top-heavy foes.
The conventional wisdom says Buchanan has neither the organizational legs nor a wide enough base of support to win and that Sen. Bob Dole's extensive finances and party backing make him unbeatable. But a glimpse at the battle for today's Arizona primary vote underscores how much can be done with a small but close-nit structure in this year's congested primary schedule.
Senator Dole's organization is a multilayered, well-funded operation, with a multitude of speechwriters, consultants, and pollsters. Buchanan's is a streamlined affair, run by his sister Bay Buchanan, with the candidate himself as speechwriter and accompanying reporters providing him with the latest poll results.
In practice, that makes Senator Dole's structure very ponderous, suggests Arizona political scientist Margaret Kenski. ''Trying to get a decision of the Dole organization is much harder than out of the Buchanan organization,'' she points out.
The bevy of advisers can also make the Dole campaign inflexible. Apparently locked into a schedule taking him elsewhere in the West, Dole didn't show for Arizona's televised debate sponsored by the state's Republican Party. And Dole's organization could not finalize his schedule for his two days of campaigning here until the night before his arrival.
On the ground here, Dole's well-financed machine has few people in it. A Dole campaign information table at a candidates' breakfast sponsored by the anti-abortion movement, which Dole did not attend, was manned by aides to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who had decided to back Dole only days before.
In contrast, behind Buchanan's talk of ''run and gun'' spontaneity lies an organized coalition of grass-roots conservative activist groups. Buchanan's Arizona office produced a schedule of five days of intense campaigning for the candidate, from speeches in small-town auditoriums to talks at local newspapers.
One part of this coalition, the core of Buchanan's 1992 campaign, is the anti-abortion movement, drawing particularly heavily on his fellow Roman Catholics. This core also includes supporters from the influential Christian Coalition, mostly made up of Protestant fundamentalists, who were crucial to his Iowa and Louisiana caucus victories. In Arizona these groups have forged an unusual alliance with the Mormons, whom Buchanan has special links to through his Mormon sister.
This time around, Buchanan's campaign has managed to yoke those socially motivated activists with economic nationalists, mobilized by his America First stance on free trade and his outcry against ''greedy corporations sending jobs abroad.'' Some are organized in groups like the Arizona Republican Assembly, a far-right faction, key to his campaign here. Buchanan's campaign also is attracting the support of militia groups, gun-owners associations, property-rights activists, and others who make up what some call the prairie-populist movement.
What remains to be seen, though, is how many more Buchanan can reach with messages that run counter to the political mainstream, especially his own party's. Only future contests will determine whether Buchanan has hit his ceiling of support.
Strong in South
The network that Buchanan has built up is particularly strong in rural areas across the South and Southwest.
Buchanan has used this organizational muscle to mobilize the disaffected working class and others who fed independent Ross Perot's bid for the presidency.
These are men like boat shop owner Bill Leper who ticks off his reasons for backing Buchanan. ''I agree with his ideas on NAFTA and GATT,'' he says, citing the two trade treaties Buchanan regularly assails. ''I agree with his ideas on the immigration problem. I do believe that corporations are raping the country.''
Above all, Buchanan offers his backers conviction. To the roar of the Yuma crowd, the former television commentator describes himself as a man who ''says what he means and means what he says.'' Whether on abortion, gay rights, or trade, he conveys a purity of belief that has enormous emotional appeal, even to those who don't share his views.
To that is added a generic anti-elitism, a constant denigration of ''the boys in Washington,'' a reference that embraces President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Every verbal assault on Buchanan from Republicans or Democrats appears to fuel his popularity. ''They're all out to stop me now - the establishment in Washington,'' he tells the Yuma crowd. ''We love you, Pat,'' a man shouts back, drawing cheers.
Identifies with alienation
Beneath this lies Buchanan's ability to identify himself with people's feeling of alienation from the political system, the sense of being outsiders in their own nation. When he speaks of ''giving voice to the voiceless,'' it is not mere rhetoric for these audiences. ''He's going to give America back to us,'' exclaims Yuma resident Jettie Sullivan.
But can this add to up victory? Ironically, both Dole and Buchanan seem to think the key to victory is to narrow the field to the two of them. Dole strategists assume that he wins easily if he can unite the mainstream vote in the party behind him. But it is hard to know where, for example, Steve Forbes supporters might go. And whether those voters will even bother to turn out. If they don't, Buchanan's loyal base could be enough to carry the day.
''I think as more and more of the candidates drop out,'' Buchanan says, ''we will have a showdown between the conservative outsider and the beltway insider. And I think in that contest, we can win.''