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Republican radical struggles for lift-off catch fire misses the old momentum of old the struggles to regain centre stage Fiery Republican strikes populist pitch

THE US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS 96: New Hampshire: Pat Buchanan is back with a populist tinge to his fiery conservatism, but this time the message is not so new

Merrimack, New Hampshire

There are few among the voters of New Hampshire who are ambivalent, it seems, about Patrick Buchanan. There was the Nashua lawyer who simply stuck a finger down her throat and the fashion retailer in Derry who called him a "dictator". Others, such as Michael Faiella, a schoolteacher, or Bill Weiss, a retired engineer, will hear of no other candidate. His campaign slogan is theirs: "Go Pat Go".

That he elicits such passion would doubtless please Mr Buchanan, a former aide to Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and, in more recent years, a political commentator who co-hosts a nightly programme on CNN television. His supporters say he alone in the race for the Republican nomination consistently speaks his mind without feints and evasions. Indeed, Mr Buchanan rarely pulls his punches.

And the message is radically conservative. He once labelled Aids as nature's "awful retribution" against homosexuals and has suggested that fire-bombing abortion clinics is no more grave a crime than the act of abortion itself. At the Republican National Convention in Houston in 1992, he appalled party moderates with his portrayal of a "cultural war" in the US between liberals and conservatives.

When he contested the New Hampshire primary election four years ago, Mr Buchanan had the attention of the nation. He was challenging President George Bush for the nomination, accusing him of having reneged on a promise not to raise taxes. His cheek, and the conservatism of his platform, opened a schism in the party that ultimately may have helped to hand the White House to Bill Clinton that November.

New Hampshire rewarded Mr Buchanan with an impressive 37 per cent of the vote in 1992. Long after it had become clear in the primary process that the nomination could never be his, he persisted in tormenting Mr Bush because, he said, he was having too much fun to stop.

Now Mr Buchanan is back, looking more pudgy and more weary than last time, but no less fiery in his rhetoric. He was energised last week when a straw poll in Alaska gave him first place over Steve Forbes, Bob Dole and the candidate nearest to him ideologically, Phil Gramm of Texas. Tomorrow, he and Senator Gramm are due to face off again in Lousiana, in the first caucus vote of the campaign. Because Louisiana sends few delegates to the national nominating convention, only he and Mr Gramm have seriously campaigned in the state.

His old 1992 stalwarts in New Hampshire are likely still to find satisfaction when they hear Mr Buchanan on the stump. Many of his themes have not changed. He remains forthright in his neo-isolationism, demanding that the US ditch its free-trade agreements and turn its back on such global organisations as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation.

Thus, in a speech inside New Hampshire's State Capitol building last week, Mr Buchanan declared: "I see the institutions of world government growing up - the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation - and I see the United States giving up its own sovereignty. I give you my word that the moment I raise my hand to take the oath of office, that new world order comes crashing down."

He is similarly extreme on immigration, proposing a complete moratorium for five years. To discourage illegal immigration, he would build a fence the length of the country's southern border and defend it with soldiers. He also would end development aid to foreign countries, which, he says, have become like welfare recipients, hooked on hand-outs.

Some things are different for Mr Buchanan this time, however. He is not alone, taking on a sitting president of his own party, as he was four years ago, but is one among a field of candidates, many of whom are sporting equally conservative colours. Worse, he returns to New Hampshire as a known quantity and, therefore less appealing.

And in one intriguing respect, Mr Buchanan has changed too. Overlaying his conservatism now is a strikingly populist pitch. He portrays himself as the defender of working Americans - "the people who work with tools and machines and their hands" - and chastises corporate America for putting the bottom line and their shareholders before their workforces. Among his favourite targets is AT&T, which last month announced plans to lay off 40,000 people - and sent the Dow Jones index soaring.

Mr Buchanan has only the dimmest chance of actually securing the nomination, let alone the presidency. As long as he remains in the campaign, however, he has an opportunity to nudge his party in the direction in which he wants it to go and to lacerate Mr Clinton along the way. And he is, we have to presume, having fun again.

Second Section: On the campaign trail with Forbes