How Buchanan could hurt Bush's bid

Even if third time isn't a charm, the populist firebrand may influence the outcome of the race.

So far, 2000 isn't shaping up to be Pat Buchanan's year.

In his third run for the presidency - this time not as a Republican, but as a member of the Reform Party - the populist firebrand is mired in polls at 5 or 6 percent.

The strife within his divided party has overshadowed Mr. Buchanan's message, at a time when he's trying to fill the "reformer" void left by the demise of Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign.

And he faces exclusion from the most important public forum of the campaign, the presidential debates. The official debate commission has decided that to participate, a candidate must receive at least 15 percent in the polls.

But Buchanan still poses a serious threat to the presidential hopes of his former fellow Republican, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. In a close race between Governor Bush and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Vice President Gore, Buchanan could take just enough votes away from Bush to swing the race.

"In a tight race, anything above 3 percent [for Buchanan], or even 1 or 2 percent, becomes significant," says Jay Severin, a New York-based Republican consultant who worked on Buchanan's 1996 campaign.

"He could hurt Bush," says Del Ali, an independent pollster. "And if Gore and Bush nauseate voters, his numbers could increase to close to 10 percent. Most of those come out of Bush."

Mr. Ali and other analysts caution against reading too much into Buchanan's potential for impact in the 2000 race. After all, this is Buchanan's third run for the presidency, and it could be difficult to paint himself as a McCain-like, buck-the-system maverick when voters are asking themselves, "Haven't we seen this guy before?"

Further muddying the picture for Buchanan is his strange new alliance with Lenora Fulani, a Marxist-Leninist who has herself run for president several times and who commands a power center in the Reform Party. Her organizational support will be significant to Buchanan, as he seeks to get the Reform Party on the ballot in the 29 states where it isn't automatically included.

When questioned about this odd coalition on "Meet the Press" on March 12, Buchanan stated that while they disagree on most issues, including abortion, they share a desire to "open up the system to black people."

Another threat to Buchanan's candidacy would be a decision by Ross Perot, the father of the Reform Party, to run for president. So far, the wealthy Texas businessman has laid low in the 2000 campaign - but he may still jump in at the last moment.

Still, as long as Buchanan is in the race, and able to gain press attention for his views, he can do damage to Bush in other ways. Even if voters decide he's old news, Buchanan has the potential to launch the kind of scorched-earth rhetoric that Perot used to the detriment of Bush's father, ex-President Bush, in his reelection campaign in 1992.

Buchanan has described Governor Bush as "clueless" on foreign policy. He has also said, ominously, "They think they've shed a lot of blood in that Republican Party lately, but wait till we get ahold of old Dubya."

Such comments from Buchanan, if nothing else, could heighten the younger Bush's challenge to show voters that he's ready to be president.

Buchanan, though, may have a hard time convincing McCain voters that he's their next-best choice.

"There won't be that much transferability" from McCain to Buchanan, says David Gillespie, a third-party expert at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.

McCain supporters - many of them independents, Democrats, and new voters - didn't come to him for ideological reasons, says Mr. Gillespie, but rather because he was new and exciting. Though he has been in Washington a long time, he was seen as fresh and nonpolitical - unlike Buchanan, who is anything but.

"He's stained by the Reform Party, and he stains that party himself, because of his alleged anti-Semitism and his emphasis on protectionism and a conspiratorial, John Birchy view of the world," says Gillespie.

Analysts say one way Buchanan could turn his image around would be to demonstrate ability as a conciliator within his new but fractured party: He could reach out to the factions of the Reform Party, including Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who have quit or otherwise left the party.

But Buchanan seems hemmed in by his need to protect his status within his Perot-supported faction of the Reform Party, which will have access to more than $12 million in federal matching funds. If Buchanan wins the Reform Party's presidential nomination, that money would be crucial to his effort to challenge Bush and Gore.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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