Republican presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan strongly suggested yesterday that he would drop out of the party to seek the Reform Party's nomination.
Buchanan has struggled to find support and has accused the Republican establishment of rushing to crown Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who has a strong lead in the polls and an overwhelming advantage in fund-raising. Asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday if he would support Bush if he wins the nomination, Buchanan said, "I cannot make that commitment" because the GOP has become a carbon copy of the Democratic Party in many respects.
"So we are taking a hard look at leaving the Republican nomination run and running for the Reform Party nomination," Buchanan said. "The decision has not been made yet, but I think it is much more open and Americans would get a real choice if that happened."
Buchanan's defection from the GOP would be a major development in the race because it could siphon support from the party's nominee. A poll last week by Zogby International had Bush leading Vice President Gore, the potential Democratic nominee, 50 percent to 36 percent. But a poll last month by Schroth & Associates suggests that Bush's numbers could drop significantly with Buchanan in the race. It had Bush at 39 percent, Gore at 35 percent and Buchanan at 16 percent.
Earlier this summer, New Hampshire Sen. Robert C. Smith dropped out of the GOP to wage a campaign as an independent.
Yesterday, Buchanan said the lines of distinction between the two major parties have blurred. "I think what we need is a real opposition party, a party that can become a second party and maybe a first party," he said.
Saying he would make a decision by Oct. 15, Buchanan added: "I'll tell you honestly, we're leaning in that direction right now."
"Strongly?" interviewer Tim Russert asked.
"Strongly," Buchanan replied.
Mike Collins, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said Chairman Jim Nicholson is looking forward to meeting with Buchanan in coming weeks to make the case that the GOP is the "true reform party" and will emphasize the GOP's role in welfare reform, business deregulation, cutting taxes and efforts to reform education. "Unlike the Reform Party," Collins said, "we Republicans have a proven commitment to the socially conservative values that Pat Buchanan cares so much about, including the sanctity of life."
Some Republicans still resent Buchanan's challenges to eventual nominee Robert J. Dole in 1996 and to Bush's father, who was the incumbent president, in 1992. Yesterday, Buchanan said, "I cannot endorse the Republican nominee as of now" because "my party at the national level has become a Xerox copy, basically, of the Democratic Party. It is pro-NAFTA, pro-GATT, pro-WTO, pro-MFN for China, in favor of intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia, in favor of NATO expansion, in favor of open-borders immigration. Mr. Bush is even in favor of expanding our Department of Education."
At the Iowa straw poll last month, Bush urged Buchanan to stay in the party. Asked to respond to Buchanan's comments yesterday, Mindy Tucker, a spokesman for Bush, said: "Governor Bush believes the Republican Party represents conservative ideas and principles and that people should stay with the party that represents conservative ideals and principles."
In the past, the Reform Party has distanced itself from taking positions on social issues, and Buchanan's strong conservative views on abortion and other subjects could pose a problem with some party members. However, Buchanan's isolationist views on trade and foreign policy meshes with the Reform Party's philosophy. Some Reform Party leaders also believe his views on term limits, campaign finance reform and banning corporate and political action committee campaign contributions are compatible, even though he has not stressed them.
Reform Party spokeswoman Donna Donovan said yesterday that the party welcomed Buchanan as long as he pledged to support its platform.
Pat Choate, the running mate of Reform Party founder Ross Perot in 1996, said he has had several conversations with Buchanan and his sister, Bay Buchanan, "and I think he's going to do it."
Choate said he believed some Reform Party members would bolt if Buchanan were nominated. But he said the party would pick up more than enough social conservatives from the GOP, as well as blue-collar and labor Democrats to make up for it.
"I have talked to a lot of people in the party, and there's a high level of enthusiasm for it," said Choate. "They can tolerate where they disagree with him, because he doesn't hedge on what he believes in. You know where Buchanan stands."
This year, a political rift emerged within the Reform Party among those who support Perot and those who support Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. A Ventura spokesman could not be reached yesterday, but the governor has been less than enthusiastic about Buchanan and in an interview published Friday in the Hill ruled out "a retread from another campaign or another party" as the Reform nominee. Ventura -- who has described himself as an economic conservative and a social liberal -- said he likes Buchanan but that his socially conservative views are out of sync with the party.
Diane Goldman, past chairman of the Minnesota Reform Party and a Ventura supporter, said opinion appears to be split on Buchanan, although many like the idea of having a nationally recognized candidate. Goldman -- like Perot, Choate and Ventura -- favors abortion rights and said she considers herself a centrist. She said she is concerned particularly about some of Buchanan's past controversial statements on race and ethnicity.
"In that regard, Buchanan doesn't totally satisfy everything I would like to see within a candidate," she said.
Perot, actor Warren Beatty, New York developer Donald Trump and former Connecticut governor and senator Lowell Weicker have been mentioned as possible Reform Party candidates. Ventura, who was elected last November, has vowed to serve out his four-year gubernatorial term, thus taking his name out of the running.
Buchanan said yesterday that if he, Bush and Gore were nominees and in debates he could argue his positions "on an American foreign policy that puts our own country first, on a trade policy that puts our workers ahead of the global economy, on an immigration policy that says we need a time-out, on a constitutional republic versus an empire -- where they agree almost 100 percent -- I genuinely believe I could win the presidency of the United States."