What the Reform Party signifies

Pat Buchanan's and Donald Trump's switch from GOP shows how personality politics is replacing party ideals

Inside the Beltway, it's easy to laugh at the Reform Party.

In one corner, you've got a rabble-rousing populist that opponents call a "Hitler lover." In the other, a mega-wealthy real estate developer with large alimony payments and a well-honed sense of self-promotion.

These two men - Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump, who have both now officially quit the Republican Party and joined the Reformers - are the new dueling front men for a party that, in seven years, has never been short of entertaining.

Behind them stand the party's battling impresarios, eccentric millionaire Ross Perot and the formerly boa-clad Minnesota governor, Jesse Ventura.

But in some real ways, the Reform Party offers the most vivid example yet of the state of party politics at the end of the 20th century - an ideological free-for-all, where voters now attach more importance to a candidate's persona than to party principles.

Even if some voters do still hew to one party line or another, the fine print of party platforms is declining in importance. Personality has become the dominant factor in presidential politics - in all the major parties - particularly at a time of peace and prosperity. Media-driven campaigns, fueled by big money, are only accelerating this trend.

The 2000 presidential race is "basically a high-stakes popularity contest," says Del Ali, an independent pollster.

And so, enter Pat versus The Donald. Mr. Buchanan is definitely running for president. Mr. Trump is still just in the "exploratory committee" phase but has stated "it's a very great possibility that I will run."

In Trump's case, the messenger is the message: an in-your-face risk-taker whose policy views almost seem a footnote to the man's persona. But in fact, Trump seems a better fit for the Reformers existing platform, which blends economic conservatism with social libertarianism.

At its conventions, Reform Party members have intentionally steered clear of sticky issues such as abortion, saying they don't belong in politics. Now, some top Reform members say that silence opens the way to Buchanan's staunchly anti-abortion view.

Others, who oppose Buchanan, say his hard line could drive a wedge into the party. If Buchanan wins the Reform nomination, the party's social libertarians may opt to start yet another party.

The irony in the possible Buchanan-Trump matchup is that both men left the Republican Party to get away from the likes of each other. Buchanan says he left because the party had lost its way on core principles, such as the abortion issue.

Trump says he quit because "the Republicans are just too crazy right," a comment that he could easily have been aiming at the Buchananites, judging from some of Trump's comments about the conservative commentator. Speaking Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," he called Buchanan a "Hitler lover," a reference to Buchanan's new book stating that Hitler posed no real threat to the United States at the start of World War II.

Trump has said he won't run for president unless he thinks he can win. But if he declines to run, that gives Buchanan a clearer shot at the party's nomination.

Another possible Reform candidate is Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who ran in 1992 and '96, and who won enough of the vote both times to qualify for federal election matching funds. For now, Mr. Perot is supporting Buchanan, in part because he reportedly believes Buchanan can win enough of the 2000 vote (at least 5 percent) to perpetuate the Reformers' qualification for federal funds.

A big part of the Reform Party's appeal to a low-funded candidate like Buchanan is that he could organize his supporters to qualify for enough state ballots to collect the $12.6 million in matching funds the party's nominee is entitled to in 2000. Buchanan is now on his third presidential campaign and has a mailing list of 250,000 people.

Trump, who has never run for elective office before, would begin a presidential campaign from a dead start.

And then there's Governor Ventura, another outsize Reform Party personality who has dangled the possibility of running for president, probably later rather than sooner. Were Trump and Perot not to run, Ventura might feel - for the sake of the party - compelled to jump in.

For now, though, if there is any common theme in the Reform Party, it is that they're all "trying to reorient the way people see government," says Michael Birkner, a historian at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa.

Trump's message is that he "cuts through red tape with a silver sword."

Buchanan wants to use government muscle to protect workers. Both are saying, "We're tough, and we're going to make things happen" - and use government to do it, says Professor Birkner.

A big question for the Democrats and Republicans will be how much the Reform nominee takes away from the two main parties' candidates: A poll last month by Luntz Research showed Buchanan taking 7 percent of the vote from GOP front-runner George W. Bush and 3 percent from Democratic front-runner Al Gore. But in that three-way matchup, Mr. Bush, the Texas governor, would still win the presidency.

*Staff writers Francine Kiefer and Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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