Buchanan takeover kills hope for party

August 14, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- If Ross Perot were dead, he'd roll over in his grave to see what's happened to the Reform Party he founded. He's not, but he doesn't seem to care.

Four years ago in this same coastal city, Mr. Perot ran a tightly controlled self-coronation with only minor opposition from former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm. In the election that followed, Mr. Perot's vote fell from the 19 percent he had won in his first presidential run in 1992 as an independent to only 8 percent. But it was enough to entitle this year's Reform Party nominee to $12.6 million under federal campaign law.

With that kind of money, there seemed to be a fair chance at the start of 2000 that the new party could gain a real toehold in presidential politics if Mr. Perot finally stepped aside and a good new candidate could be recruited. The public yearning for an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, the polls said, continued to be strong.

But what happened here at the Reform convention -- an open brawl between the remnant forces of the old Perot party, with Mr. Perot himself absent, and the insurgents enlisted by television commentator Pat Buchanan -- has badly split the Reform Party and dashed that hope, at least for 2000.

Mr. Buchanan, accused of "hijacking" the party by corralling thousands of new recruits and illegally taking over state parties across the country, dismissed his rivals as a "rump" group and vowed to press on, laying claim to the federal subsidy as the Reform Party nominee.

But the old Perot faction, now backing John Hagelin, a physicist who ran for president twice on the Natural Law ticket, has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, which doles out the subsidy. The FEC has at least 15 days to consider the complaint, and probably will take longer, before deciding on the disposition of the $12.6 million. (Al Gore and George W. Bush each gets $67.5 million).

As Mr. Buchanan pointed out here, the funds are critical to his chances of achieving his immediate objective, which is to secure the 15 percent in the major public polls that the Commission on Presidential Debates says it will use to determine whether a third-party candidate will be invited to the confrontations along with the major-party nominees.

The money is hardly the only bone of contention. The old Perot forces say Mr. Buchanan is bent on converting the Reform Party from Mr. Perot's focus on economic and budgetary issues to the social issues like anti-abortion, anti-gays in the military and the state of morality in American life. While the party platform adopted reflects the old Perot issues, Mr. Buchanan pointedly released a statement of "personal belief" in which he declared he would aggressively pursue his social-issues agenda as the party nominee.

But political muscle dominated the convention here. Illustrative was the unseating of the New York delegation that had been elected in a state primary in March. The Independent Party of New York is the largest Reform Party affiliate in the country, claiming to have 173,000 members, and it is staunchly anti-Buchanan.

Its chairman, Frank McKay, said the New York party will meet next month to decide what name to put on its ballot line for November, but that it will not be Mr. Buchanan's. Representatives of the Buchanan group charged that the Independent Party is planning to offer its line to Ralph Nader, the Green Party nominee.

After the elected delegation was unseated by an overwhelming voice vote of Buchananites at the party's credentials committee, a delegate from Alabama, Bob Belcher, got into a debate with Lenora Fulani, the radical firebrand who had once allied herself with Mr. Buchanan but then broke with him. Mr. Belcher said he would have supported the elected delegation had it agreed to support the nominee of the party. Ms. Fulani said the New Yorkers had the right to back whichever candidate they wanted.

And so it went. With this sort of split, and the fight over the disposition of the $12.6 million subsidy, the Reform Party seems certain to be blowing the chance it had to advance the cause of better government that was so ambitiously started by Mr. Perot, who so far is sitting this round out.

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

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