O woe is the Reform Party

March 31, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Pity the poor Reform Party. Just when voters have been stirred to a lather by John McCain to clean up presidential politics, and Al Gore and George W. Bush are trying to assume his reformer mantle, the third party hand-crafted by Ross Perot seems to be going to hell in a handbasket.

The highest-ranking elected official to win under the Reform Party banner, Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, has abandoned ship in disgust over the party's internal squabbling and its growing image as a haven for political kooks. His own ally, Jack Gargan, one of the first men to urge Mr. Perot to run for president in 1992, has been given the boot as national party chairman in favor of Pat Choate, Mr. Perot's 1996 running mate now allied with Pat Buchanan, the Republican Party escapee.

Mr. Buchanan appears to have the field to himself to be the 2000 nominee now that political neophyte Donald Trump has rejected Mr. Ventura's courtship. But Mr. Buchanan's strange bedfellowship with left-wing radical Lenora Fulani, coupled with his distinctly off-the-wall views on the U.S. involvement in World War II, makes his acceptability to many Reform Party members questionable at best.

Mr. Gargan's ouster and Mr. Choate's election at a raucous party meeting last month have just been upheld by a federal judge, but the decision does not by any means end the internal turmoil. The site of the party's national convention this summer is still up in the air, in spite of the fact that Mr. Gargan and Mr. Ventura, who wanted it moved from Long Beach, Calif., to St. Paul, are both now on the outside looking in.

Now Mr. Buchanan is pushing to move the convention to Nashville, Tenn., on grounds that its reserved dates at the convention center in Long Beach are being crowded by a religious convention and, besides, there aren't enough hotel rooms to handle a national political convention. The same site sufficed in 1996, though, when Mr. Perot orchestrated his own nomination.

The outlook for the Reform Party today is a far cry from the optimism generated after Mr. Perot's success in winning 19 percent without any party structure in 1992. Although his vote dropped to 8.4 percent in his 1996 re-run, the first under the formal Reform Party banner, it was enough to earn the party's 2000 nominee about $12.6 million in federal campaign funds. That bundle was a key incentive for Mr. Buchanan to quit his lifelong home in the GOP in favor of his Reform Party conversion and bid for its nomination.

Mr. Buchanan or any other Reform Party nominee will need to win at least 5 percent of the total vote in November to qualify the nominee for federal funds again in 2004. That prospect looks pretty shaky right now, imperiling the third party's hopes to cement itself as a future player in the process. In addition to all the chaos within the party, the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has run them since 1988, has again set standards for participation likely to rule out Mr. Buchanan or anyone else nominated by the party. Mr. Perot was included in the 1992 debates with Bill Clinton and President George Bush but was barred in 1996 on grounds he was not running strongly enough in the polls to have a "realistic chance" of being elected.

It has been widely assumed since Mr. Ventura's emergence as the most prominent elected reform leader that Mr. Perot would at last fade into the woodwork. And leave the presidential race to somebody else.

Indeed, he has kept a very low profile through all the intra-party skirmishing. Asked the other day about the court decision that affirmed the chairmanship of his old running mate, Mr. Choate, and whether he might run a third time, Mr. Perot replied: "When I'm ready to say something, I'll let you all know."

That is hardly a Sherman-like statement of unavailability. If it sounds like the party is a can of worms right now, you can just imagine what it will be like if Ross jumps in as a presidential wannabe again. John McCain, in turning aside Reform Party entreaties to make himself available and saying the Republican Party was still his home, is no dummy.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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