WASHINGTON, D.C. — Four years ago, Pat Buchanan's campaign co-chairman stood alongside a white supremacist, a Ku Klux Klan leader and a militia group leader while a speaker branded gun control supporters "your enemies" who are "pumping all the Talmudic filth that they can vomit and defecate into your living room."
Larry Pratt, who last week took a leave of absence from the Buchanan campaign, watched that day as the crowd burst into applause.
In more recent years, Pratt returned to similar meetings, standing beside some of the most bigoted supporters of gun rights. Only in recent days has he distanced himself from their views.
Buchanan, whose upset victory Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary has boosted his chances for the Republican presidential nomination, is not alone in attracting extremists to his campaign. But his sudden surge in the GOP race, and his defense of his longtime friend and adviser, is raising troubling questions for many, including Jews.
"It's astonishing to me that a guy who has gone to meetings with really stone-cold Nazis and white supremacists is a welcome lobbyist on Capitol Hill," said Kenneth Stern, the American Jewish Committee's expert on anti-Semitism and hate groups.
Pratt's role in an important Republican campaign poses a graver threat than many realize, Stern said, partly because of his access to conservative members of Congress.
Pratt's gun control activism "bridges the gap between the far right, anti-Semites, racists and members of Congress," said Stern, whose book "A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate" was recently published.
Yet Buchanan, who won 27 percent of the New Hampshire primary over Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole with 26 percent and former Tennesee Gov. Lamar Alexander with 23 percent, is only the latest presidential hopeful to have a key supporter tied to extremist causes.
GOP hopeful Steve Forbes, who finished a distant fourth in New Hampshire and Iowa, faced questions about his informal adviser, Thomas Ellis, a former director of the Pioneer Fund, which is known for its anti-Semitism and white supremacist views.
Revelations about extremists amid political campaigns are neither new nor surprising, say political experts. People with extremist views tend to flock to campaigns during the election season, they contend.
It was true in 1988, with revelations that President Bush had Nazi SS sympathizers in his inner circle, and it is true today.
"Politics attracts passionate people and some of the passionate people are extremists," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "They feel they can get legitimacy by attaching themselves to mainstream candidates."
Jason Isaacson, director of AJCommittee's Washington, D.C., office, said campaigns are "where the action is in American politics."
The true test of candidates is how they react when extremists are uncovered in their campaign hierarchy, Foxman and others agreed.
"You can't really expect candidates to weed out in advance people who have extremist attitudes or have graced the platforms of extremists," Foxman said.
The only way to judge candidates is what they do "once the person's history is brought to their attention," Foxman said — adding that Buchanan has failed that test.
Despite media scrutiny and calls from other campaigns to dump Pratt outright, Buchanan has refused.
"I think it was a mistake to go to those meetings," Buchanan said Sunday on ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley," referring to Pratt's participation in the right-wing rallies.
"But, look, I'm not going to cut this man loose when he's asked me to stand by him while he explains what he did right and what he did wrong."
Buchanan said that "the dogs are on him" because he is "a devout Christian who happens to be very strong in favor of gun ownership, and he's standing with Pat Buchanan."
Despite Buchanan's support, Pratt may have trouble explaining himself based on a long record of extremist contacts.
As head of the Gun Owners of America, Pratt attended numerous rallies with the most virulent anti-Semites and racists of today. Pratt started Gun Owners in 1975, convinced that the National Rifle Association was not active enough in opposing gun control.
Allegations about his links to extremist groups began to resurface last week after the Center for Public Integrity released a report on presidential campaigns. The center said Pratt is widely credited with "introducing the concept of militias to the right-wing underground."
In an effort to stem the tide of criticism, Pratt called a news conference, telling reporters, "I loathe the Aryan Nation and other racist groups with every fiber of my being."
Pratt released a statement touting support from the Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, described by the ADL as a "right-wing fringe group" in Wisconsin. Pratt told Ted Koppel on ABC-TV's "Nightline" the group's head, Aaron Zelman, considers Pratt a "righteous gentile."
Buchanan has compared Pratt's plight to that of Christina Jeffrey, the House historian dismissed by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) after revelations she criticized a Holocaust education curriculum for not adequately explaining Nazi views.
She has since been exonerated by, among others, Foxman, who was among her staunchest critics.
"She was smeared, she was destroyed and Newt cut her loose and dropped her over the side," Buchanan told "Nightline."
Buchanan has also evoked the Million Man March to defend Pratt, saying that not everyone who attended the Louis Farrakhan-led rally shares Farrakhan's black Muslim views.
Still, revelations about other questionable advisers in Buchanan's campaign dog him.
The latest embarrassment came last week, when the Jewish Communications Network, an online news service, reported that the Buchanan World Wide Web Internet site included an article blaming the death of former White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster on Israel's CIA, the Mossad.
The controversial article alleged that Foster, whose death was ruled a suicide by police, sold U.S. nuclear codes to the Mossad for $2.73 million, which was deposited in a secret Swiss bank account. The article also accuses first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton of being a Mossad agent.
The Buchanan campaign removed the article from the site after the disclosure.
In the Forbes campaign, meanwhile, Ellis, an informal adviser and good friend to Forbes, sparked more questions.
Ellis' group, the Pioneer Fund, was initially led by a Nazi sympathizer who once told Congress that four-fifths of Jewish immigrants were feeble-minded.
More recently, the fund gave a grant to a white supremacist professor who wrote Jews have an evolutionary boost from "intermittent persecution, which the more intelligent may have been able to foresee and escape," as reported by Bob Herbert in a column in The New York Times.
Forbes has not made any public statements about Ellis, and has yet to reply to a letter on the matter from the ADL's Foxman.