FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- With a withering blast at the two-party system, Patrick J. Buchanan formally abandoned the Republican presidential contest yesterday and joined the fight for the Reform Party nomination.
Buchanan starts out as a strong contender for the Reform ticket, which offers the conservative commentator his best opportunity to carry his message of economic nationalism into next year's presidential debate. His third run for the Republican nomination had been stirring little voter excitement and has left his campaign $1.3 million in debt.
Less than 10 percent of the electorate would support Buchanan in a three-way general election matchup next year, according to recent polls. But opinion surveys also indicate that he could draw enough conservative support to hurt the Republican nominee.
Another potential Reform Party candidate, developer Donald Trump, also quit the Republican Party yesterday. But Trump doesn't plan to announce his intentions until January, amid widespread doubt that he will actually run.
Buchanan's speech, ending nearly two months of self-generated speculation about his intentions, was delivered to an audience that included some top Reform Party officials. His scorching critique of the two major parties drew an enthusiastic response.
"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 declared to shouts of approval from several hundred supporters at a Northern Virginia hotel.
Underscoring the bootstrap nature of his operation, the nationally televised event was marred by repeated audio problems. Buchanan appeared unfazed, joking that "what's been knocking out these microphones is all that applause."
Many of the familiar elements of a Buchanan rally were in evidence, from the "Go Pat Go" chants of his supporters and the American-flag-bedecked stage to the handful of sign-toting demonstrators outside labeling him an anti-Semite.
But new faces were also on hand to show their support, including Pat Choate, the 1996 Reform vice presidential nominee, who introduced Buchanan, and Lenora Fulani, a one-time ally of Louis Farrakhan and former independent presidential candidate who heads a faction within the party. According to Choate, about two-thirds of the state Reform chairmen were present, to "welcome him into the party."
Buchanan, a White House aide under Republican Presidents Reagan, Nixon and Ford, said the two major parties have become "identical twins," unwilling to fight "with conviction and courage to rescue God's country from the cultural and moral pit into which she has fallen."
He dismissed the two-party system as "a fraud upon the nation nothing but two wings of the same bird of prey." Buchanan noted the bipartisan support for a variety of foreign-policy and free-trade initiatives, including "the illegal war on Serbia," the "appeasement of Beijing" and "IMF bailouts of corrupt and even criminal regimes."
Buchanan, 60, said he was ending his longtime membership in the Republican Party with "anguish and regret." Quoting President John F. Kennedy, he added, "Sometimes party loyalty asks too much."
"Only the Reform Party offers the hope of a real debate and a true choice of destinies for our country," Buchanan said.
As he did as a Republican, he is targeting disaffected blue-collar workers -- "the forgotten Americans whose jobs were sent overseas to finance the boom market of the 1990s that the rest of us enjoy" -- along with his longtime base among social conservatives.
In the eyes of federal regulators, Buchanan is merely continuing his 2000 candidacy under a different party label -- meaning that those who gave the $1,000 maximum to his Republican campaign cannot donate more money. He will be eligible for about $2 million in federal matching subsidies next year, according to his sister and campaign manager, Bay Buchanan, a figure that should more than cover his current campaign debt.
The overall themes of his campaign remain the same. But his speech showed how he is tailoring his call for a "new patriotism" to supporters of his new party, whose founder and first presidential nominee, Ross Perot, received 19 percent of the vote in 1992 and 8 percent in 1996.
Buchanan barely mentioned social issues, including his staunch anti-abortion-rights position, which runs counter to the views of many Reform Party members and is a source of opposition to his candidacy from Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the party's top elected official.
He never used the words "abortion" or "life." Instead, he merely denounced "that abomination they call Roe v. Wade," the 1973 decision legalizing abortion.
Besides appealing to those turned off by the major parties, Buchanan stressed government reform issues that have resonated with Reform audiences. He assailed Washington's "addiction" to soft money and called the tax code a "weed" that should be ripped out by its roots.
In becoming the sixth candidate to quit the Republican race, Buchanan drew a good-riddance response from Arizona Sen. John McCain, who had been an early critic of Buchanan's recent book that questioned U.S. entry into World War II against Hitler. "Unlike so many others," McCain said, "I do not mourn his departure."
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who initially hoped Buchanan would remain in the party, said Buchanan was leaving because his "message was rejected by Republicans across America."
In converting to the Reform effort, Buchanan intends to draw heavily on grass-roots support from his 1992 and 1996 campaigns. Under party rules, even those who vote in next year's Republican primaries may vote for him for the Reform nomination.
It is not clear yet who his Reform rivals will be. Ventura has left the door open a crack to a presidential run. And Perot has not ruled it out.
The most likely opponent may be Trump, a billionaire with the personal fortune to compete. Under the Reform process, candidates must demonstrate strength by qualifying for the ballot in 30 states where the party does not automatically gain access.
That process is time-consuming and costly, requiring thousands of signatures in some cases. The Reform ticket will not be chosen until the convention in August after a canvass of party members. The nominee will receive $12.3 million in federal money for the general election.
Opposition to Buchanan appears to be loudest among the Ventura faction, which took control of the party apparatus from the Perot forces last summer.
"We aren't peasants in Minnesota, thank you very much," said Rick McCluhan, chairman of the Reform Party of Minnesota and a staunch Ventura ally. "And the thing is, we aren't people who are easily led, either. You're not going to tell us, 'You ought to buy into this Buchanan candidacy.' "
Other Reform politicians were similarly unenthusiastic. "I'm afraid that Pat Buchanan can probably pull this off," said Richard Lamm, a former Democratic governor of Colorado who lost the Reform nomination to Perot in 1996.
But the party's current national leaders -- all Perot supporters -- said the speech resonated with them. Russell Verney, the outgoing national chairman, said he found Buchanan "inspiring" and believed he would motivate legions of Americans who did not vote in the last election.
Verney argued that party members care more about Buchanan's ideas on trade and government reform than about his conservative social agenda. "I'm not sure that's of great moment to members of the Reform Party," Verney said.