FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- With a withering blast at the two-party system, Patrick J. Buchanan formally abandoned the Republican presidential contest yesterday and joined the fight for the Reform Party nomination.
Buchanan starts out as a strong contender for the Reform ticket, which offers the conservative commentator his best opportunity to carry his message of economic nationalism into next year's presidential debate. His third run for the Republican nomination had been stirring little voter excitement and has left his campaign $1.3 million in debt.
Less than 10 percent of the electorate would support Buchanan in a three-way general election matchup next year, according to recent polls. But opinion surveys also indicate that he could draw enough conservative support to hurt the Republican nominee.
Another potential Reform Party candidate, developer Donald Trump, also quit the Republican Party yesterday. But Trump doesn't plan to announce his intentions until January, amid widespread doubt that he will actually run.
Buchanan's speech, ending nearly two months of self-generated speculation about his intentions, was delivered to an audience that included some top Reform Party officials. His scorching critique of the two major parties drew an enthusiastic response.
"Let me say to the money boys and the Beltway elites who think that, at long last, they have pulled up their drawbridge and locked us out forever: You don't know this peasant army. We have not yet begun to fight!" Buchanan declared to shouts of approval from several hundred supporters at a Northern Virginia hotel.
Underscoring the bootstrap nature of his operation, the nationally televised event was marred by repeated audio problems. Buchanan appeared unfazed, joking that "what's been knocking out these microphones is all that applause."
Many of the familiar elements of a Buchanan rally were in evidence, from the "Go Pat Go" chants of his supporters and the American-flag-bedecked stage to the handful of sign-toting demonstrators outside labeling him an anti-Semite.
But new faces were also on hand to show their support, including Pat Choate, the 1996 Reform vice presidential nominee, who introduced Buchanan, and Lenora Fulani, a one-time ally of Louis Farrakhan and former independent presidential candidate who heads a faction within the party. According to Choate, about two-thirds of the state Reform chairmen were present, to "welcome him into the party."
Buchanan, a White House aide under Republican Presidents Reagan, Nixon and Ford, said the two major parties have become "identical twins," unwilling to fight "with conviction and courage to rescue God's country from the cultural and moral pit into which she has fallen."
He dismissed the two-party system as "a fraud upon the nation nothing but two wings of the same bird of prey." Buchanan noted the bipartisan support for a variety of foreign-policy and free-trade initiatives, including "the illegal war on Serbia," the "appeasement of Beijing" and "IMF bailouts of corrupt and even criminal regimes."
Buchanan, 60, said he was ending his longtime membership in the Republican Party with "anguish and regret." Quoting President John F. Kennedy, he added, "Sometimes party loyalty asks too much."
"Only the Reform Party offers the hope of a real debate and a true choice of destinies for our country," Buchanan said.
As he did as a Republican, he is targeting disaffected blue-collar workers -- "the forgotten Americans whose jobs were sent overseas to finance the boom market of the 1990s that the rest of us enjoy" -- along with his longtime base among social conservatives.
In the eyes of federal regulators, Buchanan is merely continuing his 2000 candidacy under a different party label -- meaning that those who gave the $1,000 maximum to his Republican campaign cannot donate more money. He will be eligible for about $2 million in federal matching subsidies next year, according to his sister and campaign manager, Bay Buchanan, a figure that should more than cover his current campaign debt.
The overall themes of his campaign remain the same. But his speech showed how he is tailoring his call for a "new patriotism" to supporters of his new party, whose founder and first presidential nominee, Ross Perot, received 19 percent of the vote in 1992 and 8 percent in 1996.
Buchanan barely mentioned social issues, including his staunch anti-abortion-rights position, which runs counter to the views of many Reform Party members and is a source of opposition to his candidacy from Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the party's top elected official.
He never used the words "abortion" or "life." Instead, he merely denounced "that abomination they call Roe v. Wade," the 1973 decision legalizing abortion.