Reform Party seeks a compass

Pat Buchanan's possible bid raises questions of identity within a party

Conservative Republican Pat Buchanan's expected switch to the Reform Party has sent the nation's most colorful third party into an uproar over its identity and future.

The party, which already split once a few years back over founder Ross Perot's tactics, is now divided again over what Mr. Buchanan would do to the party.

But behind the maneuvering between leading Reform camps - Mr. Perot and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, and their acolytes - there sits a larger truth: There really isn't much of a Reform Party out there.

"Rumors of the Reform Party's health are greatly exaggerated," says Steve Schier of Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "It's a shell, a slapdash organization. It doesn't even have a common agenda."

Minnesota - Whose governor, Mr. Ventura, is the party's highest-ranking officeholder in the US - should be in the apex of the party, Mr. Schier says. But even there, the Reform Party is not a major political force. Polls of Minnesota voters show that only about 4 percent identify themselves as Reform Party members. And Ventura hasn't done much to build the party there.

The party's hollowness, analysts say, explains why some of its activists are leery of Buchanan: He and his own small but active base could swallow it whole.

In a way, the party's history has paved the way for this possibility, because it has always been a personality-based group. It was founded in 1992, under a different name, by Perot as a vehicle for his two presidential campaigns. Then it became a vehicle for the colorful Ventura to enter politics.

Now, in fact, two out-sized personalities - Buchanan and real-estate magnate Donald Trump - are considering presidential bids under the Reform banner.

What the party does have is a $12.6 million "endowment" - the federal subsidy it is entitled to from Perot's 8 percent showing in the 1996 presidential campaign. That is particularly enticing to Buchanan, whose two previous presidential campaigns relied more on grass-roots populist enthusiasm than cash.

Buchanan, for now, remains a Republican. This week GOP chairman Jim Nicholson met with Buchanan and urged him not to leave the party, but many Republicans view his departure as inevitable. And some welcome it, given his hard-line views on social issues and his recent book that questions US involvement in the war against Hitler.

Within the Reform Party, Buchanan's expected arrival has inflamed party tensions over its identity and style. Perot and his supporters welcome Buchanan, they say, as long as he endorses the Reform platform.

Pat Choate, Perot's running mate in 1996, has said Buchanan's guerrilla style fits the Reformers own brand of insurgent politics. Russ Verney, outgoing chairman of the party and Perot backer, says Buchanan's social agenda - including a tough anti-abortion position - poses no problem for the party.

"Our platform does not address social issues," says Mr. Verney. "Social issues are neither a qualifier or a disqualifier."

Buchanan does jibe with the Reformers in his support of trade protectionism and opposition to open immigration. But on taxes, Buchanan and the Reform Party appear to clash: Buchanan supports tax cuts, while the Reform platform calls for surpluses to go to debt reduction. Verney believes a combination of tax cuts and debt reduction would be in line with Reform principles.

Ventura, who is encouraging Mr. Trump to throw his gold-plated hat in the Reform ring, has said he believes Buchanan's hard social agenda doesn't fit the party's image and spirit. Ventura won an important battle over the summer when his candidate to chair the party, Jack Gargan, beat Perot's candidate.

But party divisions continue to flare up. In Connecticut last week, Mr. Gargan walked out of a Reform convention for a time out of concern that Buchanan opponents weren't being allowed in. A Reform meeting in New Hampshire was canceled last weekend when concerns arose that Buchanan supporters would take it over.

Buchanan opponents in the Reform Party can take heart that even if he joins their party, he wouldn't necessarily win its presidential nomination. Whoever competes for that slot will have to work hard to ensure ballot access in the 29 states where the party doesn't already have it. Verney says that process alone would cost a candidate about $6 million.

But that's where Buchanan may have an advantage over Trump: The conservative commentator has a mailing list of about 250,000 supporters whom he could deploy to gather signatures and perform the other tasks involved in getting on the ballot.

On the question of party membership, Verney says the party has no hard figures, but notes party candidates have garnered more than 30 million votes since 1992, including Perot's two presidential runs and Ventura's victory in Minnesota. In 1996, the party claimed 1.3 million voters. Besides the Minnesota governorship, the Reform Party has elected a mayor, a school board member, two county supervisors, and a city councilman to office.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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