WASHINGTON -- Trouble may be brewing for Pat Buchanan in his drive for the presidential nomination of the Reform Party, with old party members growing increasingly resentful about his tactics in attempting to take control of the party and, they charge, revamp its focus and purpose.
An effort at last weekend's California Reform Party convention to tie Mr. Buchanan's hands on the vice-presidential nominee and on the party's agenda, under the threat of disaffiliation from the national party, fell short. But it served to fire a warning shot across Mr. Buchanan's bow that ill will toward him could turn the party's national convention in Long Beach in August into a full-blown row.
Mr. Buchanan scoffs at the threat and says he expects to be the only candidate to qualify for the party's write-in presidential primary to be conducted by mail and over the Internet next month, with the results announced at the convention.
But a second contender, John Hagelin, who was the standard-bearer for the Natural Law Party in 1992 and 1996 and now is actively seeking the Reform Party nomination, says he also will qualify. To win a place on the ballot, a candidate must have succeeded or made a major effort to win ballot position for the Reform Party through voter petitions in all or most of the 20-odd states where the party was not qualified going into the 2000 campaign.
In a wide-open process, not only registered Reform Party members but any voter who requests a ballot may participate in the primary. The result may be overturned by a vote of two-thirds of the convention delegates. Mr. Buchanan is being accused of taking over state party organizations to get a lock on the convention and assure his nomination by this means in the event he fails to win the primary.
Critics of Mr. Buchanan say if Mr. Hagelin gets on the ballot he could well be competitive against the former Nixon speechwriter, drawing support not only from Natural Law Party members but also old Reform Party members concerned that Mr. Buchanan wants to make over the third party started by Ross Perot from its original reformist agenda into a right-wing vehicle for his own social agenda, including categorical opposition to abortion.
When an anti-Buchanan resolution went before the California convention seeking to affirm the convention's right to pick the party's vice presidential nominee, Mr. Buchanan was quoted as saying, "My running mate will be pro-life." The resolution failed, but Mr. Buchanan now says he meant only that he intended to recommend a pro-life running mate if he is the presidential nominee and that he would expect the convention to accept his choice.
One of Mr. Buchanan's most outspoken foes is a Californian, Jim Mangia, national secretary of the party. He has called Mr. Buchanan "a cheat and a liar" in his maneuvers to seize the party's leadership. Mr. Buchanan in turn calls Mr. Mangia "a homosexual" who would be thrown out of his office for his accusation if he held the same office in the Republican Party.
Mr. Mangia says "the backlash against Buchanan is a snowball that's growing every second," but Mr. Buchanan insists the opposition against him is only a handful of discontents. He insists he will be a unifying force.
Russell Verney, who ran Mr. Perot's campaign in 1992 and remains a Perot loyalist, says Mr. Buchanan has to be regarded the frontrunner for the nomination now but Mr. Hagelin should not be counted out. As for Mr. Perot, Mr. Verney says the Texas founder of the party knows it is too late to get into the race himself, but does not rule out the possibility that Mr. Perot might yet intercede in some other way to detour Mr. Buchanan's nomination.
Both Mr. Mangia and Mr. Verney say it's inconceivable that the convention would overturn the result of the party's mail-in primary. To do so, they say, would be the death knell of the party in terms of public credibility. But the elements for a stormy two months leading up to the national convention, and for a free-for-all at it, are there, with Mr. Buchanan himself stirring the pot with his aggressive tactics.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.