As leading Republican officials closed ranks behind the decision of George W. Bush not to condemn Patrick J. Buchanan, Hispanic and Jewish leaders contended that the Texas governor missed a key opportunity to give meaning to his message of "compassionate conservatism."

Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy organization, said that Bush should have followed the course of Arizona Sen. John McCain, who not only attacked Buchanan for the views he espouses about World War II in his new book but also said the conservative commentator no longer should be part of the Republican Party.

"I was very proud of John McCain and disappointed that other folks like George W. Bush want to sweep the issue under the rug." Yzaguirre said. "It's fine to articulate the notion that the party is a big tent. But this is not simply a question of a difference of opinion. This about something very fundamental, tolerating Hitler and tolerating a world menace."

Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker defended Bush's decision to continue the call for Buchanan to stay in the GOP in the wake of the publication of his controversial book, "A Republic, Not An Empire." The book suggests the United States might have been better off staying out of World War II.

"The governor disagrees with the ideas expressed and he believes World War II was a great and noble cause," Tucker said. Bush, she added, "is a leader who believes in uniting our party instead of driving wedges between people. The Republican primary is a contest of ideas; Republicans will have a chance to express their opinion."

At a private meeting with Jewish leaders last week in Austin, Bush said he did not want to get into a public confrontation with Buchanan that would only elevate Buchanan in the media when the conservative candidate has been running poorly in the polls, according to some of those who met with Bush.

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who was at the Austin meeting, said the Bush strategy was perhaps appropriate at that time, but after both McCain and Elizabeth Dole broke the silence, elevating Buchanan was no longer the issue. Foxman said that Bush "didn't step up to the plate. . . . He missed an opportunity to lead and show leadership, but I don't think the chapter is closed."

For Jewish Republicans, Bush's strategy poses a dilemma. "Mr. Buchanan's views are certainly outside the mainstream," said Cheryl Halpern, chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition. "His campaign phone number best represents my personal view, and that is 'Go Pat Go,' " in that she would like him to leave the GOP. But Halpern added, "Whether the current front-runner among Republican candidates for the presidency should come down to the level of a marginal figure, that is a question of campaign strategy."

Marshall Wittman, director of congressional relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation and a McCain supporter, countered that the Buchanan book controversy was an ideal moment for Bush to define his candidacy and to restore the Republican commitment to oppose intolerance:

"This is comparable to the moment in the 1992 election when Bill Clinton denounced Sister Souljah," he said, referring to the time Clinton told Jesse L. Jackson that his Rainbow Coalition should not have given a speaking platform to Souljah, a rap singer who suggested that black criminals turn their violence from fellow blacks toward whites.

"It's been very disappointing in many ways," Wittman said of Bush's response. He said Bush's request that Buchanan stay in the party "opens us up. Democrats can use the failure of Republicans to denounce Buchanan as a wedge issue against Bush in 2000."