Even before Patrick J. Buchanan burned his bridges on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, front-runner George W. Bush's strategists had given up on talking him out of bolting the GOP. They now concentrate on keeping the Reform Party presidential nomination from Buchanan, and that leads them to St. Paul, Minn., and Jesse Ventura.

A Bush operative indirectly contacted Gov. Ventura, the nation's only major officeholder elected under the Reform banner, to see whether he might contest Buchanan for the fledgling party's nomination. The word back to Austin was that Ventura would seek another candidate but might "consider" running himself if nobody else is available. If Buchanan is nominated, he has also indicated privately, he might leave the Reform Party and take his followers with him.

Gov. Bush's presidential express, encountering a Buchanan bump in the road, has to rely on the gravel-voiced wrestler. Bush strategists believe no Reform candidate will drain away more Republican voters than Buchanan -- not even Ventura, though he might collect a higher overall percentage.

Complacent Republicans had told themselves that good old Pat never would leave the party of his mentors, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, despite years of contemptuous treatment from the party's hierarchy. Hopelessly behind the curve, they were stunned by his description Sunday of the GOP as a "Xerox copy" of the Democrats. Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson's long-sought talk with Buchanan will take place in a couple of weeks. But if Bush himself could not persuade Buchanan to stay, how can Nicholson?

Buchanan has all but closed the exit doors. On Monday in New York, he lunched with Reform pillars Pat Choate, Ross Perot's 1996 vice-presidential running mate, and Lenora Fulani. Washington consultant Choate was long connected to congressional Democrats, especially House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. Fulani, an African American woman, ran for president in 1988 as a left-wing independent.

Moreover, Buchanan is eyeing newly installed Teamsters chief James Hoffa as his vice president. No offer has been tendered, but Hoffa has not said no in advance.

What's a born-and-bred Republican like Pat Buchanan doing with the likes of Choate, Fulani and Hoffa? The tie that unites them is opposition to free trade, NAFTA, GATT and the World Trade Organization. Buchanan is targeting more than disaffected right-wing Republicans, envisioning a coalition of losers in the global economy who want closed borders on trade and immigration.

The last piece in the puzzle for Buchanan is Perot himself. My telephone call to the Reform founder in Dallas was returned by Russ Verney, the party's former national chairman, who said Perot is not giving political interviews and will stay neutral in the presidential selection.

But not really neutral. Choate told me: "He [Perot] certainly likes Pat Buchanan and welcomes him." Pro-Buchanan comments from Perot lieutenants Verney and Paul Truax, the Reform Party's Southwest coordinator, signal their chief's intentions.

Buchanan has no illusions about going around the Dallas billionaire. "This is Ross Perot's party," Buchanan told me. They have not yet spoken to each other, and Buchanan will not trigger a media feeding frenzy with a summit meeting. A simple telephone call will do to get the founder's tacit blessing.

With Republican assumptions that pro-choice Perot never could embrace pro-life Buchanan now shattered, Republicans count on Ventura to save them. It will be difficult for Ventura to run for president two years after being elected governor by chastising Republican candidate Norm Coleman for seeking the governorship one year after being reelected mayor of St. Paul.

Apart from presidential ambitions for 2004, Ventura's views on trade -- pro-NAFTA, anti-protectionist -- are described by an aide as "diametrically opposed" to Buchanan, who is viewed by the governor as "preoccupied with the social issues" (meaning abortion).

So Ventura is seeking a surrogate. A trial balloon for liberal ex-Connecticut governor Lowell Weicker collapsed. Ultraliberal actor Warren Beatty doesn't seem serious. Mentioning John Anderson, who disappeared from politics after collecting 6.6 percent of the vote as a candidate in 1980, drew no attention.

That leaves Ventura agents talking to real estate-casino tycoon Donald Trump, who is interested. The Manhattan deal-maker seems a bad match with Perot's party, but he may be the GOP's last hope to stop Buchanan.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.