Just as his prospects were beginning to rise in the Republican presidential contest, Pat Buchanan was sideswiped Thursday with renewed allegations of racism and radical extremism.
Buchanan's campaign co-chairman, Larry Pratt, came under attack for reputed ties to white supremacist and militia groups. Pratt temporarily stepped down, denying he has links to the groups. His leave of absence came at the urging of Buchanan's sister and campaign manager, Bay Buchanan.
Buchanan's opponents seized on the charges, calling them further proof of the conservative commentator's bigotry.
The blunt-talking former Nixon aide took them head-on in a televised debate Thursday night.
"I am on the verge of breaking out of New Hampshire toward the Republican nomination," Buchanan said. "The sure sign of it this week and today was the savage attack on my co-chair Larry Pratt of the Gun Owners of America."
The controversy stems from a report issued by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, an independent research organization, indicating that Pratt spoke at 1992 Colorado seminar organized by a group that advocates violence to promote white supremacy.
Pratt, executive director of the gun group, said he "loathes the Aryan Nation." But he stood by assertions that militia groups are a necessary defense of the right to bear arms.
A myriad of supporters rallied to defend Pratt and Buchanan.
"This is America, and guilt by association is not a valid thing," said Ralph Demicco, a Buchanan supporter and owner of Riley's Sport Shop in Hooksett. "I have no reason to believe he would be involved in anything like that."
Charlie Arlinghaus, executive director of the state GOP, said Buchanan's swift distancing from Pratt should lessen the impact of the incident.
Yet the new allegations could be particularly damaging to Buchanan because he has long battled an image that he walks on the ultra-right fringe of the Republican Party.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who now sees his final chance at the GOP nomination threatened by the renegade Buchanan, already was trying to capitalize on that perception, running a TV ad that labels Buchanan too extreme. Asked about the latest charges against Buchanan, Dole did not hesitate: "Larry Pratt? Yeah, he oughta be fired."
The Dole camp also has distributed a litany of Buchanan's harshest comments and writings to date on subjects such as homosexuality, women's inferiority and racial quotas.
Buchanan took on the front-runner during the debate. "My friend Bob Dole here, my friend of 30 years, has an attack ad on me calling me an extremist," he shot at Dole. "Pat Buchanan is not an extremist. Those are cuss words of the establishment. If I'm an extremist, why are you pirating my ideas and parroting my rhetoric?"
At the GOP's national convention in Houston in 1992, Buchanan alienated many in his party with shots at Hillary Rodham Clinton's "radical feminism" and those who embrace "the homosexual-rights movement."
Just this week, he gave a podium-thumping speech on the "cultural war" in America.
"Look what's happening in those schools," he said. "God and the Bible and the Ten Commandments have all been expelled, and all this nonsense of secular humanism _ everything from gay rights to crazy sex education _ brought in."
With just five days to the critical New Hampshire primary, the report on Pratt fit an all-too-familiar pattern in modern politics: The ride on the way up can be a dangerous trip.
"The issue today is a scurrilous attack designed to derail the success of the Buchanan campaign," Pratt said.
Buchanan is not the only candidate facing last-minute charges.
In the final hours leading up to the Iowa caucuses earlier this week, rumors spread that a campaign aide to Steve Forbes had ties to a racist-leaning think tank. That came after extensive reports that the man making Forbes' razor-sharp campaign commercials also produced provocative spots in the racially divisive campaign between North Carolina GOP Sen. Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt, an African-American.
On the same day the Pratt controversy surfaced, the Wall Street Journal reported that Lamar Alexander tapped well-connected friends to help him acquire a 900-acre property while he was governor of Tennessee. Earlier reports show that Alexander, who offers himself as the outsider in the race, turned a $1 newspaper investment into a $620,000 profit.
"I plead guilty to being a capitalist," he replied.
But the Buchanan revelations overshadowed the squabbling over Alexander's outsider status.
Clinton deputy campaign manager Ann Lewis accused Buchanan of routinely using language about government that is "dangerous and provocative." She called it a "bad day" for the GOP.
Buchanan's fans warned against others casting the first stone.
"I don't think that would change my opinion on voting for him," said Debbie Crabb, a Buchanan supporter who helps run Camp Victory, a Bible camp in Plymouth. "You know there's so much mudslinging, this time of year everyone's setting everybody up."
"Would it distract me? No," said Pat Freo, owner of Freoni Firearms in Laconia. "Mr. Clinton had his pot-smoking, draft-dodging and womanizing and that didn't stop any Democrats from voting for him."
Mike Wiley, who unsuccessfully ran in Florida's 1994 Democratic Senate race, issued a written statement backing Pratt from his Massachusetts consulting firm. Pratt appeared at a "Freedom Rally to Protect the Right to Keep and Bear Arms" in Tallahassee in 1994.
"As a Jew, and as an American," he wrote, "I could not stand by and watch the politics of defamation be used against Patrick J. Buchanan, by slandering the good name of Larry Pratt."
_ Contributing to this report were Times political editor Howard Troxler, staff writer Jennifer Thomas and news researchers Kitty Bennett and John Martin.