If at first you don't succeed, try another party

Presidential hopefuls consider defecting from GOP, which could affect 2000 race.

Ok, the idea is preposterous: a Reform Party candidate becoming the next president of the United States.

Jesse Ventura - the man who defied every convention but Geneva to become governor of Minnesota - insists it is possible, and he cites his experience as Exhibit A. But most others consider it downright silly.

Yet analysts acknowledge that third parties, such as the Reform Party, could have a significant impact on the 2000 presidential campaign.

At the very least, they say, alternative candidates could erode the base of the traditional parties, and thus influence the outcome of the election.

This is of particular concern to Republicans, who this week saw one of their own presidential hopefuls peel off to become an independent, and possibly run as a member of the US Taxpayers party - an antiabortion, antigun control, tax relief party.

New Hampshire's Bob Smith is the first senator to defect from the GOP since 1952, and represents the alienated wing of the party's social conservatives. From presidential runners Gary Bauer to Pat Buchanan, these conservatives feel isolated, swept aside by Texas Gov. George W. Bush's enormous lead and premature rush to the center.

GOP softens stance

Senator Smith complains that Republicans have gone soft on issues such as gun control, abortion, and defense. Messrs. Bauer and Buchanan agree, and while Bauer says he'll stick with the GOP, Buchanan has left the door ajar, possibly to the Reform Party.

"The Republican establishment is doing its best right now to almost force a fracture in the GOP.... The Republican establishment is virtually fixing this election," Buchanan said on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday.

For Republicans, the concern is not that Bob Smith will pull from behind and overtake their front-runner, but that they will lose conservative voters to him, or others, such as Buchanan, should they run as independents or with third parties.

"Every Republican is concerned with a potential third-party candidacy," Dee Stewart, executive director of the Iowa Republican Party has said. "It could do nothing but hurt us."

On another front, the Reform Party plans to field its own presidential contender, especially since it's looking forward to $12.5 million in federal funds. Fresh from the Ventura victory, there's a feeling among members that if the party could come from behind once, it could do it again.

Thomas Mann, a longtime political observer at the Brookings Institution, says it's conceivable that the Reform Party could capture 15 percent of the vote - compared to nearly 19 percent in 1992, and a much more modest 8 percent in 1996. "It's potentially important," he says of the party.

But he points out a caveat the size of a cannon ball. While the Reformers may have money and organization, they don't have an issue. Americans, frankly, are too fat and happy to go alternative.

"It's hard to keep anger in full throttle when life is going pretty well," Mr. Mann says. Moreover, with both the Democratic and Republican front-runners hugging the center, "there's less of a market" for a centrist, populist movement like Reform, he says.

Is the time ripe?

Reform members disagree. Honesty and integrity, they say, are perennial issues in politics. "The proof is how few people go out to vote," says Russel Verney, outgoing Reform chairman. Last November, nationwide voter turnout was 36 percent. In Minnesota, it was 63 percent.

And Mr. Verney insists there are other issues, such as campaign-finance reform and fair trade. While the established parties fight over how to spend the next decade's surpluses, the Reform Party will remind voters about the surplus illusion - much as Ross Perot warned about budget deficits in the 1992 campaign. The surplus forecasts assume today's budgetary spending caps, an unrealistic assumption in the eyes of some economists.

But who will carry this message? Party leaders like Verney admit they need a candidate with charisma and name recognition.

According to a June poll of Reform members and leaders, Colin Powell was their first choice, at 39 percent; Mr. Perot their second, at 18 percent; Governor Ventura their third, at 11 percent; and real estate mogul Donald Trump, their fourth, at 10 percent.

Most of these choices, however, pose problems for the party.

General Powell says he is still not running; Perot is far too controversial within the party, though he hasn't made up his mind whether to run; Ventura promises to serve out his term as governor; and Buchanan, also on the list, would have to shed his pro-life agenda since the party steers clear of social issues.

Meanwhile, the Reformers are still plagued by the split between Perot-istas, who want to cling to their founder, and those, like Ventura, who want to move on. This will likely be the main topic at the party's national convention July 23-25, when it elects new leaders.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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