Patrick J. Buchanan, whose presidential bids in 1992 and 1996 bedeviled the Republican establishment, yesterday severed his lifelong ties to the GOP and declared his candidacy for the Reform Party presidential nomination.
At a news conference packed with 350 supporters chanting "Go, Pat, Go" along with an impressive array of Reform Party leaders, Buchanan, who had been a top aide in the administrations of Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, denounced both major parties as controlled by big corporations and special interests.
"Our two parties have become nothing but two wings of the same bird of prey," he told the crowd. "Neither fights today with conviction and courage to rescue God's country from the cultural and moral pit into which she has fallen."
The former television commentator's move to the Reform Party could set off a bitter battle between forces loyal to party founder Ross Perot, some of whom are backing Buchanan, and those aligned with Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who has said Buchanan is not a good fit for the party. And if he wins the nomination, Buchanan could threaten the chances of the Republican nominee.
Without mentioning Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) and his huge cache of funds, Buchanan said that this year "money men" have stacked the deck against "candidates of ideas" by frontloading the primaries to place a premium on cash: "Both parties seek out the hollow men, the malleable men, willing to read from TelePrompTers speeches scripted by consultants."
To a standing ovation, Buchanan echoed the call to arms from his 1996 campaign: "Let me say to the money boys and the Beltway elites who think that, at long last, they have pulled up their drawbridge and locked us out forever: You don't know this peasant army. We have not yet begun to fight."
Buchanan's entry into the Reform Party nomination fight was greeted by Republicans and conservative loyalists to the GOP with renewed charges of antisemitism and accusations that his most recent book demeans the U.S. role in fighting Adolf Hitler.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a critic before Buchanan announced his abandonment of the GOP, claimed vindication: "Pat Buchanan left the Republican Party the day he questioned America's involvement in defeating Nazi Germany. . . . I do not mourn his departure." McCain then took a swipe at Bush, who had declined to criticize Buchanan: "Too many of my party's leaders made the mistake of trying to appease Buchanan. . . . Our party must stand on principle, and on principle, Pat Buchanan is clearly wrong."
Bush yesterday was critical of Buchanan: "Pat sees an America unable and unwilling to compete in the free market; Republicans welcome competition because we know America's best is the best in the world. Pat sees an America that should have stayed home while Hitler overran Europe and perpetrated the Holocaust. Republicans are proud of America's role in defeating Nazi Germany."
Buchanan gets about 9 percent support in most polls--6 percent comes from the GOP and 3 from the Democratic side, for a net Republican loss of 3 percent, primarily from the ranks of social conservatives. While a small fraction of the electorate, 3 percentage points can prove critical in a close contest.
The potential difference a Buchanan candidacy could make was demonstrated in a recent New Hampshire poll. In a contest pitting Bush against Democrat Bill Bradley, Bush led 45 percent to 44 percent. But with Buchanan in the race, Bradley pulled ahead, 45 percent to 41 percent, with Buchanan getting 5 percent.
Buchanan, long identified with very conservative views on social issues, yesterday tailored his comments to Reform Party activists, many of whom support abortion rights. He did not, for example, say the word "abortion"--once his trademark issue--making only peripheral mention of "that abomination they call Roe v. Wade," the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Instead, Buchanan stressed his protectionist policies--stands believed to resonate strongly with normally Democratic union voters.
Buchanan, whose bid for the Republican nomination this year failed to gain traction, portrayed his candidacy as a mission: "Can America remain forever a light unto the nations . . . a republic above whose sovereignty stands the sovereignty of God alone?" he asked his cheering audience. "That is our cause. And so it is that in the name of the Founding Fathers, we go forth to rescue America."
A foe of U.S intervention in Kosovo and in U.N. peacekeeping missions, Buchanan said he is running to "rescue" the United States from the threats of "world government" and further entanglement in "the bloody territorial and ethnic wars of the new century."
The televised announcement was marred by microphone problems. Otherwise, the turnout and the enthusiastic reception suggested that Buchanan enters the Reform contest as an early favorite. Real estate developer Donald Trump is the only other well-known figure considering a bid. Serious challenges could be mounted by Perot, who has remained silent, and by Ventura, who has said he does not intend to run.
Buchanan was introduced by Pat Choate, Perot's 1996 running mate. Lenora Fulani, who controls a significant bloc of votes in the Reform Party, said she could support Buchanan, even though her leftist views are almost diametrically opposed to Buchanan's.
Candidates seeking the Reform Party nomination must first get on the ballots of the 30 states that currently do not give the party automatic recognition. Reform Party members and others requesting a mail-in ballot then vote for the candidate of their choice.
While Buchanan proclaimed that his intention is to win the presidency, winning the Reform Party nomination would offer significant rewards in its own right: It would give Buchanan a national podium in the general election campaign, when his positions would stand in sharp contrast to those of the likely Republican and Democratic nominees. He would qualify for $12.6 million in federal money, far more than the $3.9 million he raised this year as a Republican. And he would have the possibility of participating in the nationally televised debates.
CAPTION: Declaring his Reform Party candidacy, Patrick J. Buchanan denounced the major parties as "two wings of the same bird of prey."