Television commentator and GOP dissident Patrick J. Buchanan appears to have a good chance of winning the Reform Party nomination for president in 2000, although his prospective candidacy is already polarizing the embattled political organization, according to party leaders and activists.
Buchanan's likely candidacy has raised fears among some party members of a religious right takeover and triggered open warfare between forces loyal to Reform Party founder Ross Perot and those in the camp of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the party's highest-elected official.
But enough party leaders have put out a welcome mat to suggest that only a full-scale fight by Ventura, who has dismissed Buchanan as a "retread," or a decision by Perot to run for a third time would provide strong enough opposition to ensure a Buchanan rejection.
While not endorsing Buchanan, those sending clear signals that they could back him include outgoing Reform Chairman Russ Verney and 1996 vice presidential candidate Pat Choate -- both of whom are allied with Perot -- along with Lenora Fulani, the leftist third-party leader in New York who has thrown in her lot with the Reform Party.
Fulani has become a power in the Reform Party because she has a phalanx of supporters who, unlike most party activists, will vote as a bloc. She said recently on CNN that she could overlook differences she has with Buchanan concerning issues such as gay rights and abortion because Buchanan "can play a role as a unifier, bring everybody together."
Even Jack Gargan, who won the chairmanship of the Reform Party earlier this summer with Ventura's backing, differed with the Minnesota governor over Buchanan. "Buchanan's position on all the `America First' concepts certainly fits in nicely with Reform concepts," Gargan said in an interview. "We are for a balanced budget, keeping jobs in America, tightening up on immigration, elimination of the influence of lobbyists and special interests. Buchanan has had a strong record along those lines for years."
The most adamant opposition to Buchanan is coming from Ventura and his state Reform Party leaders. Buchanan "has been out there for like eight years running as president, and I haven't heard his political reform agenda," said Dean Barkley, Ventura's former campaign chairman. "I still see him having that abortion issue and that social agenda on the front burner, and I still say if he continues to do that, he's not going to sell well with a number of the people in the Reform Party."
Ventura first attempted to promote a presidential bid by former Connecticut senator and governor Lowell P. Weicker, and more recently by businessman Donald Trump. Neither has produced a groundswell of support.
Polls shows Buchanan getting 8 percent to 10 percent of the vote as a Reform Party candidate, with much more coming from Republican voters than Democrats. He would cost the GOP nominee a net loss of 3 percentage points, according to some analyses.
The polling does not, however, take into account the possibility that Buchanan will stress trade and other issues that appeal to Democratic union and working-class voters. Moreover, Buchanan could pick a running mate with strong appeal to Democratic voters.
Speculation is already mounting over whom Buchanan would choose as a running mate. Among those mentioned are Teamsters President James Hoffa, former California governor and current Oakland Mayor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. and renegade Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio). Buchanan said yesterday on CBS's "Face the Nation" that it is "preposterous" to think that he is offering vice presidential nominations when he hasn't even decided to run for the Reform Party nomination.
The possibility of a Buchanan candidacy has set the Reform Party's e-mail system on fire with messages flying across the country by the hundreds.
"GO PAT GO!!!!!!!!" wrote Linda Muller. She was backed up by Jeff Plott, who said: "Buchanan will move our party ahead to the next level."
Other Reform Party activists are nowhere near as sanguine. "Once Pat jumps, what next? BRACE YOURSELF! We will be overwhelmed by Right To Lifers. . . . The new leaders will be Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer," countered Ray Holtorf, Reform Party chairman of Iowa's 5th Congressional District.
For Buchanan, whose third try for the GOP presidential nomination is floundering, there are three major reasons why the Reform Party is a very attractive campaign vehicle. First and foremost, the nominee is guaranteed $12.6 million in federal money because of Perot's 9 percent showing in 1996, far more than Buchanan has been able to raise this year.
Second, the nomination puts the candidate into the general election, not just the primaries, where Buchanan gained prominence in 1992 and 1996. As a general election candidate, the nominee has a shot -- but no guarantee -- of being included in televised debates.
Finally, the candidate has the potential to set the issue agenda and influence the selection of the victor on Nov. 7, 2000. Few expect the Reform Party nominee to win the election, but Buchanan would be in a position to force debate on such favorite issues as trade, foreign intervention and American sovereignty. Depending on whether he drew more votes from Democrats or Republicans, he could determine the outcome in a close contest.
The Reform Party has been in turmoil for the past three years. A large number of party activists became convinced that Perot, after putting the party on the map, had become a liability, and Perot supporters running the national party and many state organizations had become, in the words of some critics, "dictatorial" and "exclusionary."
In this context, Buchanan has become a vehicle for Perot loyalists to reaffirm his strength in the party.
The Reform nomination is awarded under a complex set of rules. Party members, those who signed petitions supporting the party and anyone requesting the right to vote are to be mailed a ballot in the summer of 2000 with the names of all candidates who have made a serious effort to get on the ballots of the 29 states that do not recognize the party now. Voters pick their top three choices, and if no one wins a majority of the first choices, the nominee is picked in a paring-down process involving the counting of second and third choices.
Buchanan has said that he will make a decision by Oct. 15, although his comments indicate that he is almost certain to bolt the GOP. Unlike in 1992 and 1996, when supporters urged him to remain a Republican, 90 percent are now telling him to leave the party, he said yesterday on "Face the Nation."
In New Hampshire late last week, Buchanan was asked what it would take to keep him in the Republican Party. He replied: "If [GOP front-runner] George Bush came to me and said, `Pat, I've seen the light and you've got to be our nominee.' "