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In Casting Buchanan As Extreme, Dole Sees Votes; Some See Trouble

February 23, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ It was two days before the New Hampshire primary and Pat Buchanan was pacing his hotel room, shaking his head in bewilderment at a Bob Dole television ad labeling Buchanan ``too extreme″ to be president.

``Why is my old friend doing this to me?″ Buchanan asked a visitor. ``Go back over this entire campaign. I have never said anything harsh about Bob Dole. But he left me no choice.″

The wisdom of the decision to cast Buchanan as an extremist is being hotly debated within the Dole campaign and in broader GOP circles, where many believe that it is Dole who went to extremes with his criticism.

Several longtime Dole advisers, for example, have appealed to the Senate majority leader and urged him to abandon the strategy of labeling Buchanan an extremist and instead challenge his views on specific issues such as trade and America’s role in the world.

In Denver on Thursday, Dole clearly had Buchanan in mind when he said, ``Bob Dole is not some sort of fringe candidate. If you want a polarizer, I’m not your candidate.″ And the Dole campaign is running a radio version of the New Hampshire ad in South Carolina.

But late Thursday, Dole agreed to abandon the strategy and be more specific in taking issue with Buchanan, according to a senior aide traveling with the senator who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The shift, if carried out by Dole, would come in the face of stiff criticism, even from longtime supporters.

Just Thursday, for example, a veteran conservative ally of Dole’s, David Keene, used a speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee to criticize Dole for labeling Buchanan extremist.

``Your reaction shouldn’t be to say they’re all nuts or that they’re responding to the wrong thing or that the candidate that’s talking to them is wrong,″ Keene said in an interview after his speech.

Echoing that view, Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, compared Dole’s labeling of Buchanan to those attacks on religious broadcaster Pat Robertson when he sought the 1988 GOP nomination.

``I do not think it is wise to attack what is a fourth to a third of the Republican primary electorate as ipso facto extremist and intolerant,″ Reed said. ``Democrats have tried that line for years and Christian conservatives not only reject it, but resent it.″

If nothing else, Dole’s attack removed any reluctance on Buchanan’s part to launch salvos that could damage Dole.

In the final days of the New Hampshire campaign, for example, Buchanan launched ads criticizing Dole for supporting billions in tax increases and said Dole had sided with big banks and corporations on trade and foreign aid deals that Buchanan says cost American jobs.

As Buchanan campaigned Thursday in Arizona, he suggested Dole and others who say Buchanan risks dividing the party ought to look in the mirror.

``I’ve always supported the Republican nominee,″ he said. ``But I tell you, the name calling is making it very difficult for my people and my movement to support someone who’s called me a lot of names.″

Several top Dole advisers opposed the strategy from the outset. Some even believe the ad cost Dole a victory in New Hampshire, by motivating Buchanan voters and feeding into his rivals’ complaints that a desperate Dole was going negative.

Even if Dole ultimately emerges as the nominee, Buchanan’s early success has virtually assured him of a major role at the GOP convention. Given that, many social conservatives now believe it would be almost impossible for any nominee to suggest changes in the party’s anti-abortion platform plank or pick a running mate who supports abortion rights.

``From here on out, the party’s soul cannot be for sale,″ Gary Bauer of the conservative Family Research Council wrote in an analysis of Buchanan’s early strength.

Buchanan also is drawing 1992 Ross Perot supporters and blue-collar voters to the GOP ranks. Indeed, Buchanan’s narrow New Hampshire win came because of support in blue-collar areas. While most GOP operatives predicted Buchanan would suffer if turnout was high, a record number of voters participated in the GOP primary and Buchanan won nonetheless.

``That’s why these attacks are both stupid and silly,″ Buchanan said in an interview. ``You bring the Perot and Buchanan people into the Republican Party and it becomes a majority movement.″

Without taking sides in the Dole-Buchanan spat, Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour said it was critical not to alienate ``the large number of Perot voters and independents and working men and women who are looking to get Clinton out of the White House and knew voting in the Republican primary was the right place to start.″

South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, a Dole supporter, said he would ``leave strategic decisions to the people paid to make them″ but believed the best course was to criticize specific Buchanan positions, his protectionist trade views chief among them. Beasley pointed to his own successful campaign, when Democrats tried to label him a tool of an extremist religious right.

``Everyone tries to paint labels,″ Beasley said. ``Sometimes they stick and sometimes they don’t.″

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