THE DAY WAS remarkably warm for mid-November, but the 50 guests at Pat Buchanan's place in McLean, Va., sat damp and uncomfortable in blue wool power suits out of respect for the gravity of the occasion. They were the Lost Boys of the farther American right-the prophets, pamphleteers and activists whose access and influence in Washington had been sorely reduced when Ronald Reagan left town. They had been looking since for a way back inside, and as they helped themselves at the bar and found seats in the living room, their sense of anticipation was high. They knew, or could guess, the revolutionary purpose Buchanan had in mind: bringing down George Bush's presidency from within his own party-or, at the very least, embarrassing him so badly that he would have to listen to them again.

The vehicle Buchanan offered that steamy afternoon was himself-he was on the verge of mounting a fifth-column challenge to the president in the Republican primaries. A scant three years after Bush's election, he told his guests, the Reagan Revolution was over; its inheritor had betrayed "the most successful political movement of the second half of the 20th century." His record had been a series of surrenders, from higher taxes to racial quotas.

His plan was to begin his war of rebellion in the friendly environment of New Hampshire. His showing there would determine whether it would be realistic to go on. But, he insisted, he wasn't out to put on a one-state protest demonstration and then go home. He would, he said, be running to win.

He knew his chances were slight. "The odds are Bush is going to get re-elected," he said, "and then you guys have to spend four more years working with this administration. But to those of you who can't endorse me publicly, I would ask you not to damage us."

In a season for insurgency in American politics, Buchanan thus proposed the democratic equivalent of an attempt against the crown. The thought alone was seditious, particularly in a party as royalist as the Republicans. But the slow disintegration of Bush's support that autumn was itself an invitation to repudiate him-a signal, to Buchanan, that the old order was in crisis and that its timorous rules and manners no longer applied.

His formal credentials for the presidency were not obvious, even to his friends. He had spent most of his adult life as a paid provocateur-a trafficker in print, TV and after-dinner commentary as subtle, he once said, as a barbed-wire enema. His main experience at presidential campaigning had been writing combative speeches for other men. He had worked in the White House, having followed two of his patrons there. But he had been more or less effectively quarantined once he got inside, by Richard Nixon's Prussians during his first tour and by Nancy Reagan in his second.

The private Buchanan was a genial, gregarious soul, much valued for his company over drinks or dinner. But in his public person, he became the street fighter of his youth. Among the several sects of modern Republicanism, he was closest at heart to Nixon's, class-conscious and resentful; he believed, like his mentor, in whipping heads and taking names, and had made a small fortune at it. But the business of being outrageous had bred a certain recklessness in him. Pat had, as one TV colleague put it, developed the habit of saying unnecessarily interesting things.

He preached and practiced polities as Henry Adams once defined it: the systematic organization of hatred. His platform was a museum tour of a retro Republican past, isolationist in design, nativist in hue and incautious in expression. At various times, he had ridiculed the gulf war, called Hitler a man of courage, diagnosed AIDS as nature's retribution against gays and spoken harshly enough of Israel and what he called its "amen corner" in Washington to raise the published charge that he was anti-Semitic. Yet the mere fact of his availability had a certain appeal for the invitees to his audition in McLean; win or lose, Pat would be a useful blunt instrument for reminding Bush that they were still around.

He had in fact come only slowly to the idea. It had come up that fall in quiet talks with his sister and confidante Angela (Bay) Buchanan, who had been U.S. treasurer under Reagan and had run for state office in California herself. She was gung-ho; he was hesitant. As their conversations got more serious, he flew west to be near her and they worried The Subject through a round of spirituous evenings and sleepless nights.

What frightened him, he finally realized, was not so much defeat as humiliation-the possibility that he might make a fool of himself. But it got somehow less scary when he framed it as a scene from one of his headful of movie memories. If I get beat by the president of the United States, he thought, what the hell-he's still the heavyweight champ, but I'm Rocky. What mattered was not the beating you took or the blood you spilled but the fact that you were game enough to fight and tough enough to survive.

The role appealed to the brawler in Buchanan, and he finally decided to go for it. But his candidacy was born with no team, no plan, no polling and no cash on hand except his own $50,000 check to himself, he had simply said one day that he was running, and that was that. When Bay asked Brent Bozell, a prominent young conservative, to come aboard as finance director, he imagined the job would be easy. He'd heard Pat say that "people" had been after him to run; Bozell assumed that he meant people with money.

"Let's look at our assets," he told Bay. "Who are our backers?"

"Nobody," she answered.

"Oh," Bozell replied. "OK, now we're in trouble. How about a list of Pat's contacts in the financial community?" He surmised that anyone as famous as Pat had some rich friends. "We'll see in his Rolodex that he's connected to people with bucks."

"You don't know Pat," Bay said. "If you look in his Rolodex, it's all conservative hacks that he knows. It's not the hoi polloi and the money set-he never hangs around with that gang. He'd rather have a beer than a cocktail."

For New Hampshire, he did manage to find a credible young field director in Paul Erickson, who had been a youth organizer for the Reagan-Bush re-election campaign. When Erickson arrived in Manchester a mere 11 weeks before primary day, headquarters was a bare suite of offices tenanted by Paul Nagy and Chris Tremblay, two activists recruited from a threadbare right-wing political-action committee. Their assets consisted of two chairs and a folding table; with Erickson's arrival, they would have to borrow a third chair from down the hall so the three of them could meet sitting down.

Erickson guessed that Buchanan needed a catch-up course in modern campaigning; the candidate was as green as his team and, he acknowledged to one of them, as prone to rookie mistakes. Like a small boy turned loose in a video arcade with a fistful of quarters and too many hot buttons to jab, he tended to load up his appearances with his whole hot-eyed repertoire of causes and crotchets. When he first took his show on the road, the habit kept getting him into trouble. He suggested in various forums that the peskier homeless ought to be jailed for vagrancy, that the Constitution should be amended to permit not merely prayer but religious instruction in public schools, that the way to stop illegal emigration from Mexico was to build a 200-mile "Buchanan Fence" along the border. His hip-shooting made him sound intemperate or worse, and it led him far from his core message: the sickly state of the economy and Bush's complicity in it. His insurgency started clicking only when he connected it with New Hampshire's particular pain. The state was in its third year of recession; its high-tech boom times of the '80s had gone ingloriously bust. Seven banks had bellied up in a year, the number of personal bankruptcies had nearly doubled and new applications for welfare were coming in at the highest rate in the nation.

One bitterly cold afternoon just before Christmas, the candidate stopped at a paper mill for a routine photo op, pressing the flesh during a shift change. The company had chosen that day to lay off 350 hands. As Buchanan arrived, the day-shift workers were lined up for their free Christmas turkeys, a traditional beneficence from the management. Many of them still had their pink slips in their hands.

It felt to Buchanan's embarrassed party as if they had intruded on somebody else's private grief. Buchanan himself was oddly shy among strangers for so public a man, and he didn't know quite what to do; none of the second-shift workers punching in seemed to recognize him.

"Pat, go shake their hands and introduce yourself," Erickson told him.

"What do I say" he asked.

"Say, 'I'm Pat Buchanan; I'm running for president'," Erickson said, shoving him toward the line. Buchanan tried it. The response was polite but perfunctory at first, light handshakes and manufactured smiles. Then a man in the queue moved close, head down, studying the frozen ground.

Buchanan took his hand. The man glanced up.

"Save our jobs," he said.

The mood was somber in the van, heading for their next stop. "What do you do for a guy like that?" Buchanan kept asking.

No one in his party had an easy answer. He turned to his wife, Shelley. She had been crying.

"We're going to come back here," he said, "and we're going to make things happen."

Things did start happening for Buchanan. His speeches sharpened, hammering at his newly populist message and locking onto its prime target like a smart bomb in the gulf war. By Christmas Eve, he was drawing blood. The race had narrowed from 64-16 to 50-30 for Bush in the published polls, and the president had finally laid on a trip to New Hampshire. People are taking me seriously, Buchanan thought. His fear of looking silly was behind him. Even 30 percent would be a moral victory, he believed, and anything much higher might be the stuff of history. His unlikely model was the antiwar liberal Gene McCarthy, who had scored just 42 percent in New Hampshire in 1968 and had driven the nominal winner, Lyndon Johnson, from the race.

There had, of course, been ample warning that Buchanan could make trouble for Bush in New Hampshire. He wasn't even in the field yet when former governor Hugh Gregg offered a grim scenario to the president's sister over dinner one fall evening in Concord.

"People are frustrated with government; they're mad at bureaucrats; they're out of work, and they're mad at bureacrats; they're going to blame George," Gregg told her.

"Hugh, you're all wet," Nancy Ellis replied. "They love George in New Hampshire. We're neighbors."

"Nancy, they do love George, and they'll vote for him in November," Gregg answered. "But they won't vote for him in our primary. He could get beaten up here by anybody unless somebody starts paying attention."

Nobody did. The campaign appeared chronically afflicted with what one White House staffer diagnosed as "reality denial." At the first staff meeting of the new year, Fred Steeper reported that 36 percent of the primary electorate might cast protest votes-an eerily accurate measure, as it turned out. But Bush's slow downward spiral continued unchecked. There were times in his aimless passage when doing nothing came to seem a better idea after all than what he had actually been doing. His mission to Japan in January was a PR disaster, his trip to New Hampshire an orgy of verbal wackiness. "Don't cry for me, Argentina," he told a group of bewildered insurance men in Dover. By then, Fred Malek, Bush's manager, was conceding privately there wasn't a chance of holding Buchanan to under 30 percent.

A week before the primary, Buchanan's people all sensed that they were on a roll. Bush, by contrast, appeared to have lost the touch that had revived him in 1988. On one of his intermittent sallies northward, a woman thrust her unemployment-insurance ID booklet at him, the evidence of her suffering. Bush autographed it and handed it back.

Buchanan woke on primary morning feeling bullish, on no evidence better than his own unpracticed fingertips. In fact, the first batch of exit polls showed him far behind Bush, at an anemic 20 percent. "This is insane; don't even tell Pat," Bay commanded, but he knew from her silence over breakfast the news must be bad. But the polls kept improving as the hours slipped by, and when he went out for a jog at midday, a reporter told him he was only four points behind. When he got back, he was, fleetingly, two points ahead.

The lead would prove illusory, an artifact, as pollsters call their mistakes. But for a tingly moment, Buchanan found himself thinking he might actually beat Bush. "It's difficult to believe," Erickson told him, "but you really have to entertain the notion that you may win."

Buchanan was silent for a moment. Then he looked up and laughed his thin, whickering laugh.

"What the bleep are we going to do?" he asked.

In the end, Buchanan's tally subsided to 37 percent against Bush's 53-a showing that the press did indeed dress up as a humiliation for the president. The undeniable fact was that nearly half the Republicans in the season's first primary had preferred voting against their party's leader; some who couldn't stomach Bush or Buchanan wrote in a Democrat, Paul Tsongas, who ran first in his own party and third in the president's.

The task of making an embarrassment sound like a victory for Bush had been assigned to Charlie Black and Jim Lake, two seasoned political pros. As they set out for Manchester, the portents looked bad. They had called Teeter from Dulles airport and heard what no one had dared tell the president: he was losing. At the White House, Fitzwater announced that his door would stay locked till the numbers got better. By the time Black and Lake reached New Hampshire, the picture had brightened, but their spirits had not.

"It's gonna be a rough bleepin' night," Black said.

"Well, Charlie," Lake smiled, "it won't be the first time."

Bush had, in fact, lost what had become the real battle in modern politics, in which the actual results counted less than what the experts made of them. Sitting in the Oval Office, the president was furious with Buchanan for having challenged him, and with his handlers for having underestimated the threat.

BUT AS THE PRIMARY PATH turned southward, Buchanan couldn't quite deliver the knockout punch. He came close, or thought he did: his 36 percent in Georgia was a fresh embarrassment to the president, and so were his 30 percent showings the same day in Maryland and Colorado-states where he hadn't even campaigned. "We can win the nomination; we can win the nomination!" he exulted that night in Atlanta, and as his campaign rolled deeper into the South, his fantasies took on even brighter colors. At one point in his progress, he called on King George to abdicate before the voters forced him out.

In fact, the Buchanan rebellion had reached flood tide in Georgia and was already beginning to recede. His claims to have won without winning, plausible to the arbiters of opinion after New Hampshire, were harder to sustain once Bush began beating him by margins of two to one or worse everywhere else. With the approach of Super Tuesday, the degree of difficulty was about to get exponentially higher. Buchanan had reached that point where the sheer sprawl of the landscape and the exorbitant cost of covering it were more than his fly-by-wire enterprise could handle.

And the Bush people recharged their guns. Their fastidiousness about attack ads against a fellow Republican was finally abandoned. When inspiration flagged at one meeting on scripts, the insuperably mild Bob Teeter exploded. "What this spot has to do," he said sharply, "is tell voters that this guy's the goddam president and the other guy's a goddam typewriter pusher, and the toughest thing he's had to do in his whole life is change the ribbon on his goddam Olivetti."

Super Tuesday would prove the beginning of the end of Buchanan's campaign; he lost all eight states at issue by margins of two, three and four to one, and his loser's share broke 30 percent only in Florida and Rhode Island. It would never rise that high again. He did keep slogging on to the finale in California, but his vote drifted downward through the 20s into the teens and lower. At a point in his decline, he found it useful to his own future in Republican politics to moderate and finally quit his direct attacks on the president. He had by then become no more than a nuisance to Bush's men, a household pest they had to spend time and money keeping under control.