Wily Buchanan aims to plug credibility gap

Des Moines - The surviving Republican presidential contenders move off today from Iowa to New Hampshire, whose make-or-break primary next Tuesday could seal the fate of several lesser candidates, and turn the conservative commentator Pat Buchanan into a genuine contender for the party's nomination, writes Rupert Cornwell.

According to a new CNN-USA Today poll taken at the weekend, Senator Bob Dole and Steve Forbes, the publishing magnate, are in a dead heat in New Hampshire with 25 per cent each. Hard on their heels, however, with 19 per cent, is Mr Buchanan, buoyed by last week's victory in Louisiana and a strong second place in a straw poll of California Republicans over the weekend. Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee Governor, is also in the running with 11 per cent.

Over the past few days here, Mr Buchanan has started to put together an unusual and distinct coalition of the Christian right, attracted by his stern anti-abortion and pro-family platform, and of ordinary, middle- class Republican voters fearful for their jobs - for whom Mr Buchanan's protectionist, "America First" stance makes more sense than the free trade and tax cuts advocated by Mr Forbes and other candidates.

Assuming Mr Buchanan was able to translate that alliance into a strong finish here in last night's caucuses, New Hampshire looks a perfect launching pad. Although religious and social conservatives are less influential there, Mr Buchanan is known and popular in a state which always loves the insurgent outsider. Four years ago, he embarrassed George Bush by capturing 37 per cent of the vote. This time he has received the not-inconsiderable boost of endorsement by Manchester Union Leader, the largest newspaper in the state.

"If my Republican colleagues do not address economic insecurity in the middle class and declining wages among working people, they're going to lose the country," Mr Buchanan said yesterday. "I can bring it back."

The extent to which Iowa and New Hampshire voters believe him will determine whether Mr Buchanan, hitherto considered ultimately unelectable, breaks though the credibility barrier.

Helping him though are the troubles of Senator Phil Gramm, his main rival for the Christian conservative vote, as well as an apparent ebb in support for Mr Forbes. There has been growing public irritation at the negative advertising swamping the campaign, for which Mr Forbes is primarily, though not solely, responsible.

Belatedly, he has tried to correct matters by airing 30-minute paid "info- mercials", depicting himself as a successful businessman, a friend of Ronald Reagan and, in his stint as head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, an architect of the collapse of Communism.