[AllPolitics - New Hampshire Caucus]

Buchanan Win Means Trouble Ahead For The GOP

CONCORD, N.H. (Feb. 20) -- Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan's stunning victory tonight over embattled front-runner Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) throws the Republican race for the nomination into a tumult and ensures that the campaign will get bloodier as the battle for the heart and soul of the GOP intensifies.


Buchanan's rough and rugged populism appealed to economic and social conservatives, leaving Dole and the third-place finisher, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, battling for the more moderate elements of the GOP. Publishing magnate Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr., who once topped New Hampshire voting surveys, tanked to a distant fourth, showing that big bucks could not buy the Granite State.

The surprising result is a wake-up call for Republican party elders, who have predominantly thrown their support behind Dole. Though the one-time front-runner has never found New Hampshire kind, most experts thought Dole would eke out a slim victory. But Buchanan surged in the last two weeks, first in Louisiana, then Iowa, by riding a visceral social and economic conservatism.


Alexander soared, too, after his third-place finish in Iowa, and Republicans must now consider whether he is better suited to face down Buchanan, and, ultimately, President Bill Clinton. "I've got to be looking as good as the other two tonight, if not better," said Alexander, but he added, "I've got to start winning soon." As Dole's support eroded over the past weeks, he downplayed the importance of the New Hampshire vote, stressing that a win -- any win --would suffice. But even that proved elusive in a dramatic setback.

Buchanan will head directly to South Carolina, where his fiery conservatism plays well. Alexander is looking to win somewhere in the southern tier of states, with Dole hoping to stanch the bleeding through hefty organization, party loyalty and big money (though heavy spending on TV ads in New Hampshire apparently did not help him). While claiming strength from today's vote, Alexander must demonstrate strength over a new foe -- lack of funding.


Conventional wisdom suggests that Forbes should pack it up, but he has no plans of leaving the race, and, with money to spend, he will likely carry his message deep into the campaign. All that presages a frenzied set of primary battles and perhaps even a brokered convention, making the GOP look more like the disorganized Democrats of days past.

There are at least two major losers from the New Hampshire vote --Dole and the Republican Party. Dole's loss highlights a faltering campaign to a GOP electorate hungry for alternatives. He emerges with no claim as front-runner, and the GOP emerges with no clear message or candidate, which means a lot of blood will be spilled between now and the August convention in San Diego.

Party elders are shocked by Buchanan's victory, even though he fared well in New Hampshire four years ago against President George Bush. Alexander's strong finish here, and in Iowa, could give him the momentum and press attention he needs to overtake Dole in a race most analysts believe Pat Buchanan simply cannot win, despite his recent surge. Alexander could do well in upcoming southern primaries, if he can afford the necessary media blitz, which hinges on his ability to fill his campaign coffers.


But it will take more than money to dislodge Dole. Though New Hampshire has traditionally been a harbinger for the ultimate GOP nominee, Dole's mighty and well-funded campaign is a formidable force to reckon with in the Midwest and states such as New York, where the Dole machine has kept the Republican field off most district ballots. One of Alexander's strongest arguments may be that Dole as the wrong man to oppose Clinton next fall.

Buchanan's strength may portend a fractured GOP. Bolstered by his remarkable showings in Alaska, Louisiana, Iowa, and now New Hampshire, Buchanan is poised to take his campaign to the convention, and it has earned him a prominent voice. In some ways, Buchanan could become the Jesse Jackson of the GOP, except that his influence will be far stronger than Jackson's ever was in the Democratic party.

The biggest winner tonight, however, may have been President Clinton, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and scored an overwhelming victory. He could only take delight in the carnage a bitterly divided Republican field had created in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire Republicans turned out in record numbers to vote today, their airwaves and streets having been deluged for months by candidates and a rash of nasty advertising. They voted pretty much as New Hampshirites do, with their pocketbooks. Three out of 10 voters were primarily concerned with the strength of the economy and the security of their jobs, according to exit polling. Close behind stood taxes, cited by one-fifth of the voters as important, and some 50 percent said they liked the idea of a flat tax. Sixteen percent were most concerned by the federal budget deficit.

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