A party in total disarray


WASHINGTON -- At a time when voters continue to express dissatisfaction with the two major political parties and suggest they'd like an alternative, the turmoil in the most conspicuous option -- the Reform Party -- is imperiling the movement to put a serious face on the third party concept.

As a result of Mr. Perot's organizational efforts and 19-percent vote total in the 1992 election, and the formal establishment of the party and his vote of 8.5 percent as its standard-bearer in 1996, the Reform Party is positioned, technically, on the brink of respectability.

The Reform Party presidential nominee in 2000 will be entitled to about $12.6 million in federal campaign funds because Mr. Perot received more than 5 percent of the vote in 1996.

While this amount does not compare with the $66 million each that is expected to go to the Republican and Democratic nominees, it is enough to give the Reform Party nominee a voice in the general election campaign.

But there are some hoops to jump through to get these funds. The money will go to the party's nominee, who will be selected in August at the party's convention.

The party has qualified for ballot position in 20 states, and it requires anyone who wants the nomination to qualify on his or her own in the remaining 30. That's a formidable task, especially for an aspirant with little money.

Such rules were established to help ensure that the nominee would make a tangible contribution to the party's growth and credibility.

The party's highest-ranking officeholder, Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, has made no bones about his view that Republican Pat Buchanan wants the Reform nomination mainly for the money that's tied to it, and Mr. Ventura sees no reason why he should have it.

But Mr. Buchanan, making his third try for the presidency, has substantial grass-roots support and could well be the only political figure on the horizon who could get ballot position through all-volunteer petition drives in 30 states.

At the same time, the Reform Party is rife with dissension over its control, with factions representing Mr. Perot, Mr. Ventura and left-wing radical Lenora Fulani all involved, and a splintering threatened. None of this enhances the new party's hopes to be taken seriously by independents and voters disillusioned with the two major parties.

Further eroding the Reform Party's chances of gaining respectability is the phenomenon of some truly wacky names being thrown around as possible nominees, led by Mr. Ventura's seeming favorite, New York developer-magnate Donald Trump. Not to mention movie stars Warren Beatty and Cybill Shepherd.

The one politician with some credentials being mentioned, Lowell Weicker, a Republican who won the Connecticut governorship as an independent, has said he fears the Reform Party is turning into a joke and wants no part of its nomination.

What the Reform Party desperately needs is a standard-bearer who can bring it integrity. The nominee would not have to be a seasoned politician, and in fact it might be preferable that he not be. A distinguished university president or businessman might fill the bill nicely.

Absent such a leader, the Reform Party seems headed for the political shoals as a rudderless ship with its crew in mutiny.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 10/06/99

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