WASHINGTON -- Because conservative commentator Pat Buchanan has always been a man of strongly held principles, it should come as no surprise that he is contemplating leaving the Republican Party to seek the presidential nomination of the Reform Party.
While Mr. Buchanan has been a party loyalist through a sea of political trouble, including the Watergate travail of his old mentor, Richard Nixon, he has been no knee-jerk loyalist.
After all, he challenged incumbent President George Bush in 1992 for the GOP nomination. At that time, he contended that Mr. Bush had been unfaithful to key principles of the party, most notably by breaking his solemn "read my lips" convention pledge not to raise taxes.
Now, with Texas Gov. George W. Bush as the party's expected 2000 nominee, Mr. Buchanan's best remaining avenue for keeping his views prominently on the political radar screen appears to be the Reform Party.
The $12.6 million its nominee will get in federal funds by virtue of Ross Perot's 8.5 percent showing in 1996 is a powerful magnet, as is the possibility -- though not a certainty -- that Mr. Buchanan would be a participant in the presidential debates next fall.
One thing that must be understood about him is that for all his bombast about leading a "pitchfork brigade," he is a serious student of political history whose dismay about the direction he perceives the GOP to be taking is more than a matter of personal ambition to him.
His outspoken positions on economic nationalism, protectionism and "America First" are what drive him as much, or even more, than the prospect of the seat in the Oval Office. And if the Reform Party nomination is the way he can get greater resonance for those positions, and at the same time advance the chances for a third party more to his liking than today's GOP, this is the time and opportunity for him to jump.
Getting the Reform Party nomination, however, is far from a sure thing. While the party is a good fit for him in terms of economic and government reform issues, it hasn't taken positions on abortion and homosexuality. Mr. Buchanan has conservative views on such issues.
Jack Gargan, the chairman-elect of the party, says holding such positions will not bar Mr. Buchanan from the nomination but he would run on them "at his own risk or benefit."
Hurdles to cross
It won't be easy for Mr. Buchanan to get the Reform Party's nomination. According to Mr. Gargan, the party has qualified for ballot position in about 20 states, and its past two conventions adopted rules requiring any individual who wants the nomination to qualify on his or her own in the remaining 30.
Russ Verney, the outgoing chairman who was Mr. Perot's right-hand man in 1996, says the procedure was established to oblige anyone who wanted the nomination -- and the $12.6 million "pot at the end of the rainbow" -- to make a serious contribution to the organization of the party in this way.
He says the ballot positions the party already has achieved are worth an estimated $6 million more and it is reasonable to require a good-faith effort in party building of anyone who covets the nomination.
As of now, Mr. Verney says, the Reform Party's three-day convention is scheduled to begin Aug. 10, 2000, in Long Beach, Calif.
Mr. Verney's chairmanship runs through the end of this year but Mr. Gargan wants him to relinquish it sooner so that he can change some of the voting procedures and possibly the time and place of the convention. But Mr. Verney says it won't happen unless Mr. Gargan agrees to keep hands off the established procedures.
Mr. Gargan says he has talked to Bay Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan's sister, but won't say more. With little money, Mr. Buchanan will need his "pitchfork brigade" for a successful petition drive to place him on the ballot in the remaining states. It will be a formidable task, but very possible if Mr. Buchanan can retain the zeal level of his troops as an independent.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 9/15/99