Is there really a chance that Patrick J. Buchanan, born and bred a Republican, could run as an independent presidential candidate in 2000 and thereby elect Democrat Al Gore? Yes, the seed has been sown in the soil of Buchanan's discontent with the GOP.

Such a deviation still is unlikely. Buchanan is now pondering what he calls his "conundrum": The better he does in Republican primaries, the stronger would be an independent bid. But the longer he stays in the GOP chase, the more problems accumulate to block a third-party candidacy.

Speculation the past two weeks has led Buchanan to contemplate what he rejected in 1996, when, much to the dismay of his adherents, he supported Republican nominee Robert J. Dole. But since then, his alienation from his party and the prospective nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has deepened.

"I've been out here for four months now [campaigning for president], and the disenchantment and disillusionment with the Republican Congress is palpable," Buchanan told me. "I have not gone to a meeting where someone has not got up and asked me to leave the Republican Party and go third party. People get up -- some of them in tears -- who have been Republicans all their lives, and they don't know what to do."

Many frustrated grass-roots conservatives so far have joined self-satisfied establishment Republicans in supporting Bush. But not Buchanan. In 1996 he declined the nomination of Howard Phillips's U.S. Taxpayers Party because he regarded Dole as an experienced public servant and longtime Republican loyalist who to the end backed Richard M. Nixon on Watergate. Buchanan has ignored the GOP's 11th Commandment ("Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican") by suggesting that Gov. Bush is not fit to be president.

"I do not think he's deep on the issues," Buchanan said on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday. "What in heaven's name are his accomplishments and achievements that would justify making him the president of the United States?"

The final shove that could propel Buchanan into political apostasy would be his growing perception that he is not getting a fair shot at the nomination. He feels that Bush's campaign team is rearranging the ground rules to benefit the governor. Louisiana's and Missouri's caucuses, both won by Buchanan in 1996, have been transformed to formats more beneficial to Bush. The primary in South Carolina has been shifted from March 4 to Feb. 19, so a possible Buchanan win in New Hampshire could be more quickly trumped.

Nevertheless, Buchanan did not seriously contemplate going independent until Thomas P. Edsall reported in The Post June 20 that Buchanan had been advised to consider seeking the nomination of Ross Perot's Reform Party (which Buchanan calls "the lost tribe of the Republican Party"). Since then, the story has taken on a life of its own.

Buchanan sees three critical events taking place in the next two months. First, a conservative-sponsored straw poll July 4 in Contoocook, N.H., in which Buchanan, Gary Bauer and Sen. Bob Smith will be present for a right-wing face-off. Second, the July 15 Federal Election Commission filing, revealing which candidates are hurting for money. Third, the Ames, Iowa, straw vote that, Buchanan predicts, will find the "grim reaper" at the door.

Thus, Buchanan's conundrum. If the grim reaper grabs Buchanan, he may seem too weak to run independently. If he is left standing, as Buchanan predicts, it will be harder to leave the Republican race in time to get organized and avoid "sore loser" laws (which in many states prevent a primary election loser from later running as an independent).

Former Republican national chairman Haley Barbour, a key Bush adviser, predicts that Buchanan will never abandon his party. But Buchanan told me he feels closer to the Howard Phillips party and the Reform Party than to the leadership of the GOP: "The establishment of the Republican Party is reflecting less than ever before in my lifetime the sentiment of grass-roots Republicans." That outlook could prove ominous for George W. Bush in a close presidential race.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.