Posted on February 19, 1996 in Washington Watch

Pat Buchanan is on fire. The former CNN commentator turned Republican presidential candidate is moving up quickly in the polls. After victories in Republican Party caucuses in Alaska and Louisiana, Buchanan came in second in last week’s Iowa contest. Buchanan was so close to the winner of the Iowa caucuses, Senator Robert Dole, that he and third-place finisher Lamar Alexander (the former Governor of Tennessee), received the lion’s share of the post-Iowa press coverage.

Dole, whose home state of Kansas borders Iowa, and who in his 1988 campaign won the Iowa caucuses handily with 37% of the vote, was expected to do much better than the weak 26% of the vote he received this year. The Iowa caucuses have never been won before with less than 30% of the vote. So while Dole emerged from Iowa weakened, Buchanan and Alexander came out strengthened, ready for the New Hampshire primary.

As the first major state-wide contests in a presidential election year, Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire primary are important. Because they occur at the beginning and are spaced only a week apart, Iowa and then New Hampshire provide an opportunity for the candidates to meet voters one-on-one. Candidates campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire shake hands, visit restaurants, speak at churches, and have coffee in the kitchens and living rooms of private homes. Winning in New Hampshire and Iowa requires building trust through personal contact, and the creation of a strong organization to get out the vote on election day.

Despite the perennial complaints from some political analysts, Iowa and New Hampshire remain important testing grounds for presidential candidates. After these two states, the campaign becomes national: instead of being able to focus on a single voter or even one state at a time, the campaign must be prepared to compete (as they will on March 5) in nine states at one time. After Iowa and New Hampshire, the candidates must rely on the media – both news coverage and paid advertising – to get out their message and win the support of voters.

Iowa and New Hampshire do more than test the candidates’ ability to personally sell their messages to voters and build political organizations. These two states also effectively screen out those candidates who cannot succeed, thereby narrowing the field before the race goes national.

The first casualty in 1996 was Texas Senator Phil Graham. His embarrassing fifth place finish in Iowa despite having spent $15 million and building what experts described as one of the best organizations they’d seen in years, forced him to drop out of the race. After New Hampshire, at least two if not three of the remaining eight Republican candidates will also leave the race.

Because the two states are dramatically different from one another in terms of demographics, economy and political style, candidates must be able to shift gears rapidly and convincingly. Iowa is a farm state. It’s rural Republican party is dominated by Christian conservatives who have been a powerful force in past presidential campaigns.

New Hampshire, by contrast, is an industrial state. For years its economy suffered like that of most of the Northeast and Midwest, from the closing of industrial plants and the corresponding loss of jobs. Although currently in an upswing, in January New Hampshire’s unemployment rate was lower than the average for the entire U.S., its workers are still anxious and feel economically insecure.

Buchanan has played both states well. His conservative values campaign was endorsed by the Christian right wing in Iowa. His anti-abortion, pro-family rhetoric convinced at least 23% of the Iowa’s Republican voters that he would carry their crusade to Washington. In New Hampshire, while not forsaking his theme of conservative values, Buchanan has focused on U.S. economic nationalism. He has been a strident critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs/World Trade Organization (GATT/WTO) – both of which he derides as “instruments of surrender of America’s sovereignty.”

Buchanan’s message has caught on with New Hampshire’s voters, but has raised consternation among the Republican party’s establishment. They have been uncomfortable with Buchanan since his 1992 primary challenge to then-President George Bush. That race and his uncompromising address to the 1992 Republican National Convention calling for a “culture war” to restore America’s values, brought the Republican elite to see Buchanan as a divisive figure – some called him the Republican’s Jesse Jackson.

If his uncompromising anti-abortion rhetoric caused them pain, his anti-free trade, anti-corporate greed rhetoric has is proving to be even more toxic. But while a chorus of voices denounces Buchanan as too extreme, polls show that Buchanan’s stock continues to rise. Clearly, he has discovered an issue that resonates with New Hampshire voters when he says:

“When big business is shutting down factories here and moving them overseas and firing their workers…why should Republicans stand with the people that do that, rather than with the workers who lose their jobs?”

Pre-election polls in New Hampshire show Buchanan and Dole running even, with Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes following. It is these four candidates who will emerge and move on from the New Hampshire primary. Because is too fluid, it is difficult to predict the final outcome, but there are some signs that could indicate future trends.

What is critical about the various polls being taken now is how the candidates divide up the Republican fold. Among those Republicans who describe themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative,” Buchanan receives almost 80% of the vote, with Dole receiving about 50% of those who describe themselves as “moderate” or “conservative.” Alexander, on the other hand, leads among those voters who describe themselves as “liberal” or “moderate.” Interestingly, Forbes and Alexander compete for the same group. And as Alexander’s percentage of the vote in New Hampshire has gone up (reflecting positive press following his Iowa finish), Forbes’ numbers have shown a corresponding drop.

The positive news for Alexander is that the polls are showing that he is the only candidate with a strong favorable rating (51% favorable to 22% unfavorable). Buchanan’s and Dole’s favorable/unfavorable ratings are almost the same, with Forbes now showing very strong unfavorable ratings. Alexander also tends to be the least well-known of the major remaining candidates, which indicates that his campaign has more growth potential than any of his rivals at this point.

Buchanan’s rise is a strong one, but he is probably limited in how far he can go. His strident and angry message clearly has supporters – but he also has enemies. In 1992, he showed that in a two-way race he could get as much as 37% of the vote. In a four- or five-way race his maximum strength is probably less. But because Buchanan relies on a network of right-wing groups and his “star” quality that allows him to get free media attention, he doesn’t need to raise as much money as the other candidates do to stay viable, so he will probably stay in the race until the end.

Dole, once considered unbeatable, now appears to be very vulnerable. He is still the candidate with the major endorsements, the most money raised and the best organization, but he is looking older and less like a winner each day. Heading into the southern primaries in early March where he does not have significant grassroots support, he will need to find a message or way to bring voters to his standard beyond his standing as the candidate of the party establishment.

Alexander’s rise, like Buchanan’s has been meteoric. His plaid shirt “outsider” gimmick has worked to some extent as has his pleasant personality and his call for “new ideas.” But increasing focus on his past business deals, examination of the seriousness of his new ideas and concern among Republican right-wingers about his position on abortion may also limit his rise and his ability to raise the money needed to compete when the campaign goes national. But Alexander has a national network and has shown the ability to raise money before. His competitiveness and viability will depend to some extent on how much positive free media he can receive coming out of New Hampshire.

Forbes, whose big money negative ads initially boosted him into a leading position in New Hampshire, has now dropped considerably. Voters seem to have tired of the incessant attacks he waged on Bob Dole. The negative ads, therefore, appear to have backfired and he has taken a dive in the polls. But unlike the other candidates, Forbes has no need to raise money and therefore can remain in the race until he tires of running.

Coming out of New Hampshire, it will most probably be a four-man race (assuming Forbes stays in). The rhetoric will become sharper and the attacks even more harsh. It is not clear yet who will win the Republican nomination although, in the long run and barring any major mistakes, Dole still seems to have the edge in a national race.

It is an interesting race, not a pretty one – but then who ever said politics had to be pretty? What now worries Republican leaders is whether the party has been weakened by the divisive character of the nominating process so far and whether, whoever wins, will be able to recover from the wounds received at the hands of his fellow Republican contenders enough to wage an effective campaign in the fall.

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