Pat Buchanan has lobbed a grenade into the middle of the 2000 presidential race.
By threatening to bolt the Republican Party and run for president under the banner of Ross Perot's Reform Party, the conservative commentator has highlighted the schisms within both parties and sent a scare into the camp of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, front-runner for the GOP nomination.
If Mr. Buchanan follows through on his threats - seen as more likely, given his recent statements - he could, potentially, deny Texas Gov. George W. Bush the presidency.
That specter, looming over the Bush campaign, could cause the Texas governor to alter his moderate message and run a more conservative race to protect himself on the right. Buchanan has complained that the two main parties have become so similar that "we have a one-party system in Washington, D.C."
Many analysts, both independent and Republican, believe a third-party Buchanan run would take more votes away from Mr.Bush, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, than from the leading Democrat, Vice President Al Gore.
For now, with Bush enjoying a commanding lead over Mr. Gore in polls gauging support in the November 2000 election, Buchanan likely wouldn't win enough of the vote to cost Bush the election. But if the race were to tighten, as expected, Buchanan could pose a serious threat to Bush. In 1992, Reform Party candidate Ross Perot was blamed for denying President George Bush - father of the Texas governor - a second term and throwing the election to Bill Clinton.
"Almost every vote he gets comes from Bush," says nonpartisan political analyst Bill Schneider.
In a poll for Time magazine, GOP consultant Frank Luntz showed Buchanan getting 6 percent of the vote in a three-way matchup with Gore and Bush. Mr. Luntz has said that Buchanan would take twice as many votes away from Bush as from Gore.
At a Monitor breakfast Sept. 14, Republican strategist Mike Murphy called Buchanan a "spoiler" who probably wouldn't change the outcome of the election by running as a third-party candidate. But, he said, "I think it's a huge problem for us."
Democrats are also not sitting completely easy. They know that Buchanan could siphon votes away from their side as well, namely from labor voters who oppose free trade.
But the Republican Party is by far the more anxious of the two major parties. Party and Bush campaign officials have reportedly been wooing the sharp-tongued populist with offers of jobs in a future GOP administration and trying to appeal to his Republican roots. Buchanan has said he'll make a decision by Oct. 15.
Ultimately, it seems, Buchanan's first loyalty is to himself - and, above all else, Buchanan seems to crave attention. In this latest run for the presidency - his third since 1992 - the conservative commentator just hadn't been getting much.
Angry white males, the fuel of his previous two campaigns, are harder to find in the strong economy. Some abortion foes, another of his key constituencies, have decided they'd rather back a potential winner like Bush than a hard-line pro-lifer with no chance of winning.
At last month's nonbinding GOP straw poll in Iowa, Buchanan came in a distant fifth, behind Bush, Steve Forbes, Elizabeth Dole, and Gary Bauer. Mr. Forbes, a wealthy publisher, and Mr. Bauer, a conservative activist, both have staked a claim to the social-conservative wing of the party that Buchanan is wooing. In 1996, by contrast, he won the New Hampshire GOP primary.
The Reform Party candidate will get $12.6 million in federal funds the party is entitled to, after Mr. Perot won 6 percent of the vote in 1996.
But there's no guarantee Buchanan will win the Reform Party nomination. The party is going through its own split between Perot and its highest-ranking officeholder, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. Perot says he'd welcome Buchanan into the party, while Governor Ventura has discouraged such a move. Ventura has said he would like a more "centrist" figure as his party's candidate.
Some analysts say Buchanan may have more support in the country than his lackluster campaign has shown so far. "The ... people have lost their sense that the two major parties are legitimate in providing real meaningful choices," says David Gillespie, an expert on third parties at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. "That theme fits into people's angst and dislike of things inside the Beltway."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society