WHITE HOUSE RACE

 

Mr Pat Buchanan's achievement in securing a surprise victory in the critical New Hampshire Republican primary will have a profound effect on the race for the White House in November and it will intensify still further the battle for the heart and soul of the GOP. In the end, Mr Buchanan's fiery social conservatism proved more attractive to voters than the rather more prosaic campaign of 72 year old Senator Bob Dole, which focussed largely on his experience in government. But the strong surge in support for the former Tennessee governor, Mr Lamar Alexander, may be an important straw in the wind: the Republican Party, it seems, is still casting around for a candidate who is more attractive to voters than Mr Dole - and more electable than Mr Buchanan.

It is difficult not to feel some sympathy for Mr Dole, the Senate majority leader, who has now been a three time loser in New Hampshire. Mr Dole had a well financed campaign, the backing of the Republican establishment and 35 years of congressional; experience, but his campaign lacked the ideological edge of his main rival, Mr Buchanan.

It would be premature to write off Mr Dole's prospects on the basis of the New Hampshire result: but the omens are hardly propitious. Mr Dole is a substantial political figure with an outstanding record of public service. But his unsurpassed experience of government has been something of a double edged sword during the campaign: it is Mr Dole's misfortune that he is seen as the ultimate "Washington insider" at a time when the American public is increasingly suspicious about the Washington political establishment. Critically, Mr Dole also appears somewhat gauche on television - certainly in comparison to his main Republican rivals - and President Clinton. Mr Dole, who looked strained and weary in the aftermath of his defeat has vowed to fight on. But his campaign needs to shrug off its misty eyed patriotism and develop a much sharper focus if it is to be revitalised.

Mr Buchanan has predictably characterised his victory as a triumph for the average American, the people he labelled earlier this week as the "peasants" who stood ready to come "over the hill". His campaign, a blend of social conservatism and economic protectionism, has struck a raw nerve in blue collar America. He has tapped into fears about immigration, permissiveness, crime and, above all, the sense that America has been "betrayed" by the Washington establishment. But it hardly seems credible that this negative message will carry Mr Buchanan to the Republican nomination let alone to the White House.

The race for the nomination is far from over. Mr Alexander's folksy style and his moderate conservatism could still offer a middle course between Buchanan and Dole, while the prospect of some other contender emerging cannot be ruled out. But at this writing it would seem that President Clinton is the main beneficiary of the internecine war in the Republican Party. Mr Clinton still looks set for a second term.