Buchanan's campaign stirs up Reform Party; As he ponders a jump, members see either intruder or perfect fit


WASHINGTON -- Patrick J. Buchanan's expected bid for the Reform Party's presidential nomination has sparked testy feuds and conspiracy theories across this party, as some members worry that the candidate will blot out their agenda and out-muscle the party faithful to secure his nomination.

At the same time, an equally vocal group of Reform Party members sees Buchanan as their ticket out of obscurity -- and believe that the man who logged all those television hours excoriating liberals and Washington politics-as-usual has finally found a home.

Buchanan has not even moved to the Reform Party, and already he is proving divisive in its ranks. With rhetoric that critics call intolerant, the longtime Republican has built a political career on fierce opposition to abortion, staunch isolationism abroad and protectionist trade policy to defend blue-collar Americans.

Just this month he ignited another uproar with his theory that the United States initially had no compelling need to enter World War II against Nazi Germany.

"I don't want his social agenda to overshadow our other issues," said Rick McCluhan, state chairman of the Reform Party of Minnesota. "I disagree with any candidate coming into our party with an ax to grind."

From the other side, supporters suggest that Buchanan and his sister, Bay, his chief strategist, are ideally suited to the Reform Party.

"They belong here," said Pat Choate, the party's vice presidential nominee in 1996. "The Buchanans are the original guerrillas of American politics, and so are we."

But among all these guerrillas, there has been some rum bling in the jungle of late.

Last week, newly registered party members sporting Buchanan hats showed up at the Connecticut Reform Party convention -- tussling with longtime party members over the election of a new slate of officials believed to be friendly to Buchanan.

After a debate that escalated to hissing matches, the delegates preferred by the Buchanan brigade won the ticket. Wary of a repeat performance, the New Hampshire Reform Party canceled its convention last weekend for fear that Buchanan's supporters would control the outcome.

State chairmen in several other states are fretting about similar takeovers.

To some, the future of a Buchanan candidacy marks a struggle for the soul of the Reform Party.

"The problem with the Reform Party is that it's an empty vessel -- it can be filled by anybody with passionate followers," said Richard Lamm, a former governor of Colorado who ran unsuccessfully against Ross Perot for the party's presidential nomination in 1996. "He can take over the party, and I'm horrified at the thought."

But to many of his backers, Buchanan's economic nationalism and support for strict immigration controls put him in line with the party philosophy.

He also has the luxury of a 250,000-name mailing list and a campaign operation honed in two previous presidential runs.

"His people are some of the most energized and dedicated workers in field politics today -- he's got a very active list" of potential voters, said Greg Mueller, a former tactician for Buchanan who is now a senior adviser to Steve Forbes, a Republican presidential hopeful.

Not to mention that Buchanan loads up on free air time by regularly breathing fire on public-affairs television shows.

"At the 1996 Reform Party convention in Dallas, he had 13 standing ovations," Mueller said. "He had those people in the rafters."

But with Buchanan on the verge of seeking the party's nomination, some party members appear anxious about the prospect of his candidacy.

At least some of the friction comes from the power struggle between Perot, who founded the Reform Party, and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the only Reform Party candidate ever to win statewide office.

Perot is leaning toward Buchanan, as are such party establishment figures as Choate.

But Ventura has called Buchanan "a retread" and is backing a potential candidacy by Donald J. Trump, the developer and casino operator.

Many loyalists to Perot and Ventura are dividing along those lines.

Jack Gargan, the chairman-elect of the Reform Party who won the post with Ventura's backing, briefly walked out of the Connecticut convention last week because he believed a group of voters opposed to Buchanan were denied participation.

Russell Verney, the outgoing party chairman and a longtime Perot ally, defends Buchanan and his supporters against such criticism -- and has even tried to temper the recent controversy over Buchanan's new book, "A Republic, Not an Empire."

In the book, Buchanan argues that Hitler's Nazi Germany posed no threat to the United States after 1940.

Like other longtime party leaders, Verney thinks the book's claims are no reason to abandon the candidate.

"If you read that book, as I have, you'll find nothing unpatriotic, just a different view of history," said Verney, who added that he did not agree with Buchanan's theory.

Although no national Reform Party officials are officially endorsing any candidate yet, Verney has been busy on talk radio welcoming Buchanan.

"He's obviously a pretty good fit for the Reform Party on matters of trade," said Richard Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review magazine. "And that kind of maverick temperament -- an outsider storming the ramparts -- it's very appealing to Reform Party types."

But if Buchanan plays down his emphasis on conservative social issues, Lowry said, he is likely to lose the support of outspoken abortion opponents, who are among his biggest group of supporters. "He's really in danger of destroying himself," he added.

For Buchanan to win the Reform Party nomination, he must first secure a spot on the ballot in the majority of states without ballot access. Perot's success in 1992 and 1996 gives the party automatic spots on the ballot in 20 states.

To win the nomination, the candidate must be well on the way to securing ballot access in the remaining 30 states.

That means collecting anywhere from 200 signatures in Washington to 95,000 signatures in North Carolina.

Once those signatures are collected, the voting begins. Anyone in the country who requests a ballot -- even if that person is not a Reform Party member -- can vote in the primary.

Critics say this system is ripe for abuse by those seeking to stuff the ballot box. But supporters say it attracts new members and expands the party.

Pub Date: 9/29/99

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