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Primary Memories

Pat Buchanan’s awkward ’92 run

Republican presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan and his wife Shelley waved to supporters in 1992.
Republican presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan and his wife Shelley waved to supporters in 1992.(Jim Cole/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

In January 1992, Pat Buchanan spoke to a lunchtime gathering of the Rotary Club in White River Junction, Vt. It was one stop on a daylong New Hampshire primary barnstorming trip as Buchanan sought the Republican nomination against a sitting president, George H.W. Bush.

But the location — before a gathering of people who were unlikely able to vote in the first-in-the-nation primary — wasn’t the only odd thing about Buchanan’s visit.

When he arrived, Buchanan took a seat, alone, on a raised platform in front of the room while about 40 Rotarians chatted and socialized with one another. As the minutes ticked by, Buchanan continued to sit by himself, like he was waiting on the set of a television news program like “The McLaughlin Group” or “Crossfire.”

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A more seasoned politician — a Bill Clinton, for example, who had visited groups of New Hampshire voters in homes and a bowling alley two days earlier — would have waded into those Rotarians like an old chum, shaking hands and chatting about whatever. But here was Buchanan, the celebrity newspaper columnist and TV prognosticator, waiting to deliver his speech.

I was along to watch as Buchanan was making an imperfect transition from pundit to politician in that 1992 primary. I covered Buchanan’s campaign for the Concord Monitor, following him whenever he came to New Hampshire that winter.

At the outset of his 10-week New Hampshire campaign, Buchanan said he would use his experience as a journalist to listen to the state’s voters, though it was pretty clear his main themes were set from the beginning: stimulate the economy by cutting taxes and regulations, slash foreign aid, and, most importantly, replace Bush with a “real Republican.”

But there were several times when Buchanan’s previous work got in the way of his message, as he was continually challenged to defend or explain past columns.

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At one stop at a high school in Pembroke, N.H., a student brought a 10-year-old copy of a newspaper called the White Patriot, published by a white supremacist group. It included one of Buchanan’s columns blaming black street crime for an outbreak of violence that had followed a Ku Klux Klan demonstration in Washington, D.C. The student wanted to know how he felt about civil rights, given that a white supremacist newspaper had found one of his columns suitable to reprint, albeit apparently without Buchanan’s approval.

All this awkwardness was forgotten, however, on election night, when Buchanan surprised Bush and many of his own supporters by winning about 37.5 percent of the vote.

“Did I not tell you we would make history?” Buchanan shouted above a roaring crowd in Manchester that night. “Today, from dawn to dusk, the Buchanan brigades met King George’s army all along the Concord, Manchester, Nashua line, and I’m here to report they are retreating back into Massachusetts.”

The primary’s outcome presaged Bush’s defeat in the general election, and helped assure that Buchanan would be back to try again in 1996. He won the New Hampshire primary that year, just beating Bob Dole in a more-crowded field that also included Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes. It would be Buchanan’s high-water mark in 1996; he never won another primary.

Richard Stradling is deputy metro editor at The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C.