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Buchanan Co-Chairman Takes Leave After Questions About Right-Wing Ties

February 16, 1996 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Pat Buchanan’s campaign co-chairman, Larry Pratt, stepped aside Thursday after reports linked him to white supremacists and right-wing militia leaders, but Buchanan said he was certain the charges, which Pratt denied, are untrue.

Critics immediately used Buchanan’s close ties to Pratt, director of Gun Owners of America, to revive questions about the candidate’s own views on race and equality.

``If there’s a group promoting white supremacy in America, my country, I don’t want anything to do with this,″ Buchanan said, campaigning in New Hampshire where he already faces ads aired by Kansas Sen. Bob Dole that call his views extreme.

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At Thursday night’s GOP debate in Manchester, N.H., Buchanan pledged to stand by Pratt despite ``the savage attack″ he said indicates his candidacy is surging.

``Larry stood by me when nobody else did back in 1992 (when Buchanan last ran for president) and I’m going stand by him,″ Buchanan promised, adding: He’s being attacked because he supports me. He’s being attacked because he’s defended second amendment rights his whole life and that’s why they’re going after him. I would urge the gun owners of New Hampshire and America to stand with Larry Pratt and stand with me.″

Dole said Pratt ``ought to be fired″ rather than take a temporary leave of absence.

Added Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of Los Angeles’ Simon Wiesenthal Center: ``A man who flirts and shares platforms with some of this country’s worst racists should not be the co-chairman for a Republican candidate seeking the presidency of the United States.″

Gun owners are a key constituency for Buchanan in the crucial New Hampshire primary next week, where he hopes to do well after his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses on Monday.

Pratt said he suggested the leave of absence, telling Buchanan’s sister and campaign manager, Bay Buchanan, he did not want to distract from Buchanan’s campaign. He said he hopes to return eventually.

At a news conference, Pratt denied he holds any racist or anti-Semitic views, and called the reports linking him to hate groups a move to smear Buchanan, just as the conservative commentator is gaining momentum.

``I see this as a political effort, a tool to try to discredit the Pat Buchanan campaign,″ Pratt said.

He said he took part in at least one anti-government meeting in 1992 while looking into the incident at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where federal agents killed the wife and son of white supremacist Randy Weaver, but didn’t know racist groups were going to be there. He spoke only about gun rights, and made clear his opposition to other participants’ racist views, he said.

``I loathe the Aryan Nations and other racist groups with every fiber of my being,″ Pratt said.

The allegations against Pratt, in a report from the government-ethics group Center for Public Integrity, first surfaced last October in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. None of the reports accuse Pratt of espousing racist views himself.

Pratt has long been a vocal advocate of a citizen’s right to own firearms. His group, based in Falls Church, Va., reportedly has between 150,000 and 200,000 members, and has criticized the National Rifle Association for being too moderate.

The outspoken Buchanan has himself been accused in the past of anti-Semitic, racist and sexist views. He has denied those accusations, but critics and rivals clearly hope to raise voters’ concerns.

``It’s too easy ... to say that Mr. Buchanan has a white supremacist on his staff,″ said Norman Abelson, head of a group of New Hampshire clergy and lay leaders. ``The real question is whether Mr. Buchanan is a white supremacist.″

But Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., the only openly gay Republican in Congress said, ``No one advocates the politics of prejudice, intolerance and hatred more than Pat Buchanan.″

Pratt is one of four co-chairmen listed on Buchanan’s letterhead. ``He’s an old friend of ours and he supports our campaign,″ Buchanan said earlier Thursday.

In a ``Playboy″ article last year, Pratt was quoted as saying the right to bear arms ``is something that comes first and foremost from the Scripture. What I see in Scripture is not that we have a right to keep and bear arms, but that we have a responsibility to do so.″

After the Ruby Ridge incident, Pratt was invited to speak at ``a seminal meeting″ of militant white supremacists in Estes Park, Colo., said Mike Reynolds, an analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks militias.

The meeting was called by Pete Peters, leader of Christian Identity, which critics say supports violence to promote white supremacy. Other speakers included former Ku Klux Klan leader and Aryan Nations official Louis Bream and Aryan Nations Founder Richard Butler.

``What this meeting did was essentially lay down the foundation for this Christian patriot movement that includes the militias,″ Reynolds said.

Pratt said Thursday he attended the meeting to gather information from attendees who had been at Ruby Ridge. ``I think there’s been an effort to tar people who even say the word `militia,‴ he said.

Pratt also confirmed that his advocacy group contributed to CAUSE, a law firm headed by Kirk Lyons, an attorney who has defended high-profile Aryan Nations members. But its donations were specifically for Lyons’ class action suit on behalf of the Branch Davidians who battled federal agents in Waco, Texas, Pratt said.