Beverly Kidder, who sells used furniture in New Jersey, says it's Ralph Nader. Pat Cummings, a psychologist from Gaithersburg, insists Colin Powell's the one. No, no, says a bulky fellow from New York: It's Donald Trump, end of story.
But there's no need to shop around for a carpetbagger celebrity to run for president, according to many of the Reform Party delegates gathered here for their annual convention. We already have our own man, they say: Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. "He speaks from the heart, never from a script," said Victor Moffitt, an accountant who is the party's Rhode Island chairman. "With Ventura, we've got oomph and energy, a regular guy who says it like it is--not a millionaire like Perot."
Sacrilege? Disloyalty? Is the Reform Party, creation of the Texas magnate who won 19 percent of the presidential vote in 1992, ready to dump Ross Perot as its nominee next year and deliver its $13 million in federal campaign bucks to someone else? The 1,000 faithful here hardly talk about anything else.
From Perot loyalists to Ventura-inspired newbies, this collection of good-government reformers and disenchanted nostalgics is on a fantastic hunt for the Great Outsider, a search for a candidate with instant name recognition, spiritual distance from anything Washington-related, and what delegate Dan Plyler calls "Jerry Springer excitement." And allegiance to Reform Party principles, of course.
In fact, Springer himself might have just the right appeal for America's real silent majority--disaffected nonvoters--says Plyler, 29, one of a new group of young people who are changing the face of Reform Party conventions, which used to look like 40th reunions of a suburban Sunbelt high school.
Plyler, a student at Morehead State University in Kentucky, should know; he, too, had tuned out of politics entirely until early this year, when he saw the newly elected governor of Minnesota on a wrestling show on TV and was inspired to get involved.
It's not just young people who are leading the Reform Party into this celebrity talent search. In just three years, the party--whose meetings used to feature seminars on NAFTA and GATT--has moved awkwardly but clearly from wonk chic to a calculated desire to appear credible, slick and even charismatic.
"We owe Ross a debt of gratitude for getting us here, but we need to be looking for exciting candidates who will capture the imagination of the American people," said Cummings, who has run twice for a seat in Maryland's House of Delegates. "Sure, there's a celebrity vs. substance issue, but the celebrity culture reflects a hunger people have for qualities like energy and confidence and intellect and integrity."
Some party members are bothered by the contradiction between their roots as a movement driven largely by issues of process--campaign finance reform, term limits, ballot access--and the new emphasis on personality, character and likability. But many delegates are convinced that only a big, anti-Washington name can carry the party beyond a spoiler role.
Toward that end, the convention could sometimes be mistaken for a Ventura fan club. Posters of the skin-domed ex-wrestler in Uncle Sam mode saying "I Want You to Join the Reform Party" were selling like pie charts at Reform Party sessions of yore. Ventura "We Shocked the World" campaign videos were doing a brisk business at $10 a pop.
Ventura, the party's greatest electoral success to date, has said he is not a candidate for president in 2000, but he has also said that if he did run, "I'd give them a hell of a run and maybe win."
In a country in which former GOP Sen. Al D'Amato can play poker with raunch-radio jock Howard Stern and boast about it without fear of damaging his political viability, the yearning for some sign that politicians are unscripted, regular folks is palpable. That's why there appears to be far more enthusiasm here for Ventura, Nader, Powell and Trump than for more established political figures such as ex-Connecticut senator and governor Lowell Weicker (R) or Sen. Robert C. Smith (N.H.), an independent. (Perot has not said whether he will run again.)
At a Reform convention, the liberal and conservative battle lines of the past half-century are meaningless. Abortion, tax cuts and entitlements are not what these people want to talk about. This is old-fashioned populism reshaped for the media-celebrity age: No speaker here received half the ovation that was awarded to Granny D, a tiny, 89-year-old great-grandmother from New Hampshire who is midway through a coast-to-coast walk to lobby for campaign finance reform.
"Every American ought to be able to run for public office without having to sell his soul," Granny D--real name Doris Haddock--told the roaring crowd. They cheered her description of an America that has turned into a "sewer of greed." And they could not contain themselves when she blamed it all on "the twin viral ideas that money is speech and that corporations are people."
"Go, Granny!" they yelled. "You want to run for president?"
Despite the seeming haplessness of a party with a handful of officeholders and no guaranteed spot on many states' ballots, Reform Party members see 2000 as their great opportunity. They relish the chance to go up against Al Gore, who has perhaps the weakest claim on outsider status of any presidential candidate since Walter Mondale, and George W. Bush, who is, by name and upbringing, about as establishment as they come.
"Gore and Bush are being coronated," says Mic Farris, who runs the party's presidential nominating committee. "By next summer, when we choose our candidate, America's going to be desperate for another candidate."
Analysts differ over how much influence the party can have and what happened to its core voters, the angry whites who fed the early-'90s successes of Perot. Republican pollster Frank Luntz has argued that they got sick of politics and tuned out, while Clinton pollster Mark Penn has concluded that anti-establishment rage dissipated in a roaring stock market.
But Ventura's stunning win in Minnesota, which featured both a record turnout and massive support from young people, has opened a new angle of analysis that gives succor to Reform Party optimists. In an Atlantic Monthly cover story on the politics of Generation X, Ted Halstead, founder of the New America Foundation, a pragmatist think tank, argues that what energizes young Americans is economic populism and a rejection of conventional, two-party politics. Ventura, Halstead writes, "is no figurehead for Xers; he is just an early beneficiary of their pent-up political frustration."
Reform Party delegates are trying to figure out how to tap into that frustration without mortgaging their principles. "Personally, I'm more into the idea of reinventing civic duty than grabbing some Jerry Springer kind of excitement," said Nikki Love, the poised 20-year-old who runs the College Reform Party, the group's youth wing. "But you're competing against so much in this culture. Look at the whole Kennedy media thing. Are you going to watch Springer or C-SPAN? Well, I'd pick C-SPAN, but I'm not typical."