Just as the leadership of the Reform Party is about to change hands, the party is splintered into factions loyal either to party founder Ross Perot or Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, resulting in accusations of political treason and threats to abandon the party.
The latest furor was prompted by a federal judge's ruling Wednesday rejecting a bid by forces loyal to Ventura to hold the party nominating convention in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area -- a bid widely interpreted as an attempt to prevent the party from nominating Patrick J. Buchanan.
The court ruling appears to ensure that the August convention will be held in Long Beach, Calif. However, when Jack Gargan, a Ventura loyalist, takes over as party chairman on Saturday, he may try to rescind the Long Beach decision.
Meanwhile, Ventura, the party's highest-ranking elected official, has warned that if Buchanan is nominated, he is unlikely to support him in the general election. "I don't think I can support him," Ventura said in an interview published yesterday in USA Today. "I find him very shallow. He says he is a grass-roots guy, but I find that fraudulent."
The libertarian-minded Ventura and the very conservative Buchanan also differ on social issues and trade.
Ventura, who has ruled out running for president in 2000 but is widely believed to be interesting in running in 2004, told the paper that if the Reform Party race comes down to a contest between Buchanan and New York developer and gambling czar Donald Trump, he would support Trump. The two are expected to meet early next month.
Adding to the tension, Richard McCluhan, the Minnesota Reform Party chairman who brought the unsuccessful suit to have the convention held in his state, threatened to leave the national party: "What is the benefit to us being affiliated with the national party? We're in a unique position where we have more notoriety than the national party."
Russell Verney, the outgoing party chairman and a Perot loyalist, said his response to Ventura and the governor's supporters is: "Goodbye, don't let the door hit you in the backside."
Verney and other Perot allies formed a special party organization this week that is clearly designed to serve as a mobilizing center for anti-Ventura forces.
The mission statement of the so-called "Reform Leadership Council" warns that "the party is at risk of becoming redefined by a very vocal minority" and calls for "steadfast commitment" to the party platform, a slap at Ventura's support of free trade. The statement also calls for "maintaining the highest moral and ethical standards," another indirect reference to Ventura, who has called religion a "crutch" for the weak and has boasted of his sexual performance.
Pat Choate, Perot's 1996 running mate and now a national co-chair of the Buchanan campaign, played down the conflict between Buchanan and Ventura forces.
Choate said that Ventura has a huge vested interest in providing as much support as he can to Buchanan or whomever is the nominee in 2000 because the nominee must get at least 5 percent if the party is to qualify for federal money in 2004 when Ventura wants to run. In addition, Choate pointed out, the amount of federal money increases with every percentage point above 5 percent.
"The more votes Pat [Buchanan] gets, the more the party gets in 2004," Choate said. "If Jesse's people are real serious about 2004, they have millions of reasons to see Pat do well. . . . We will work out some sort of rapprochement there."