BY all appearances, Pat Buchanan has no chance of becoming the Republican presidential nominee. But unlike his fellow also-ran, Steve Forbes, Mr. Buchanan also shows no signs of getting out of the race.
And why should he? He's having fun, he's still drawing enthusiastic crowds, and enough money is coming in to keep his lean-and-mean road show going.
He and his supporters have other goals in mind: Put pressure on the likely nominee, Sen. Bob Dole, to select a running mate who solidly opposes abortion. Keep winning delegates, even if only a few at a time. And take the ''Buchanan brigade'' to the GOP convention this summer to fight over the party platform.
''Buchanan has the best message, and it still deserves to be heard,'' says Tom Piatek, a coordinator of Buchanan's effort in Ohio. ''Bob Dole isn't a very strong candidate; all his people can talk about is how they want Colin Powell as his running mate. I just don't want anybody pro-abortion on the ticket.''
Ohio and the other states voting next week in the ''Rust Belt Tuesday'' primaries - Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin - may not give Buchanan his most impressive totals. All four states have popular Republican governors who are throwing their weight behind Dole (and are floated as possible running mates.)
Tracking polls in Ohio show Buchanan hit his high-water mark here with likely Republican voters at 19 percent from Feb. 20 to 23, and by March 7 to 10 had trickled downward to 13 percent. During this primary season, exit polls have shown Buchanan splitting religious conservative voters with Dole, because Dole is, many say, more ''electable.''
But Buchanan has a strategy. He is campaigning in traditionally Democratic strongholds - in Ohio, the northern and eastern parts of the state - to go after disaffected blue-collar voters who might be attracted to his anti-free-trade message.
Greg Mueller, Buchanan's spokesman, calls it an exercise in coalition-building. ''Look,'' he says, ''the Republican establishment is going to get the establishment Republicans. If we have any chance of winning, we've got to get conservative Democrats and independents to come out and pull the lever for us.''
Add to that, he says, conservative traditional Republicans and Perot voters.
''That's what you got in that room,'' says Mr. Mueller, pointing toward the hall where Buchanan is doing his thing. ''If the Republican Party would wake up, it would have a great big huge governing coalition.''
Indeed, if Buchanan is having any success in raiding the Democrats' base constituency and delivering voters to the Republican Party, he is performing a service for the GOP. But Buchanan doesn't couch his crusade in such collaborative terms, favoring instead the rhetoric of an insurgent.
''This is a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,'' Buchanan says at every turn, treating his now near head-to-head matchup against Dole as a zero-sum game.
Ohio Democrats say they're not worried about Buchanan. ''Akron, Cleveland, Youngstown, those are historically strong Democratic areas, and I'm sure they'll go for Bill Clinton in November,'' says David Leland, state Democratic chairman. News reports quoted workers at a Youngstown steel-door factory, where Buchanan visited on Tuesday, as saying they liked Buchanan's message but that they were sticking with the Democrats.
The Republican establishment is clearly annoyed that Buchanan persists in taking shots at Dole. The time has come for the party to unify and go after Clinton, say GOP leaders. But, says Mueller, the Buchanan campaign has not had any overtures from the party or the Dole campaign to cut a deal to quit the race.
In any case, Mueller adds, they don't want a deal. ''Right now, we don't really have a sheet saying, here's what we want, boom boom boom,'' he says. In general terms, he adds, ''we want addressed the jobs question, we want to take a look at immigration.''
AND the abortion issue, of course, remains perhaps Buchanan's strongest drawing point. The GOP platform already calls for the abolition of the right to abortion, and Buchanan wants to make sure it stays that way.
Mueller isn't willing to concede this year's GOP race, nor does he suggest Buchanan will form a third party - though Buchanan himself has left open that possibility. But Mueller is clearly looking ahead.
''Let me just say this,'' he says. ''What 1976 was to Ronald Reagan, 1996 will be to Pat Buchanan.... Gerald Ford was the establishment candidate in 1976; Ronald Reagan was the conservative populist that everyone called names. This is political deja vu.''
If Buchanan decides to run again in four years, he will have a ready-made core of backers ready to work for him. But he'll need more cash. ''It's a shame he didn't have an organization in Ohio,'' says Jim Kloos, a self-described ''life-long Democrat'' from Cleveland wearing a sticker proclaiming him a member of the ''Go, Pat, Go Committee.''