ANNAPOLIS -- A familiar axiom on the nature of power says that the infighting is always most vicious when the stakes are lowest,. That old saw probably comes to the minds of some voters when pondering the state of today's Reform Party.
Frankly, these same voters might wonder why the state of the Reform Party is worth pondering in the first place. The selection of the eventual nominee is all but assured, and the party is garnering less than 2 percent of the vote in national surveys -- less even than Ralph Nader's candidacy.
We can think of at least 13 million good reasons to follow the Reform Party's machinations: Its presidential nominee qualifies for that many federal tax dollars to run his fall campaign. And who wants to be a millionaire? None other than Patrick J. Buchanan who, not long ago, was deemed too conservative to win the Republican nomination.
Buchanan supporters have been methodically taking control of the internal mechanisms of the Reform Party state by state at party conventions, ousting longtime party members loyal to party founder H. Ross Perot, but even that hardly seems to matter. Mr. Perot has formally taken himself out of contention for the nomination.
But Reform Party rules provide that the nominee -- chosen by voters via the Internet and mail balloting nationally -- can be overturned by a two-thirds vote at the party's national convention next month in Long Beach, Calif. So Mr. Buchanan isn't taking the chance of having actual voters stand between him and that aforementioned $13 million.
Why should ordinary people care? Because our polling shows that their $13 million will be squandered by a candidate like Mr. Buchanan, who is completely out of step with voters who are looking for a third party alternative.
In August 1999, Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications Inc. polled 302 voters nationally who identified themselves as likely to participate in the Reform Party nominating process if given the chance. Seventy-eight percent of those voters agreed that "America's economy benefits from our maintaining and promoting free trade and open markets with other countries in the world."
Sixty-four percent said that "social issues such as abortion and school prayer do not belong in a presidential party's platform." And, perhaps most importantly, 58 percent of those who would like to participate in the Reform Party's nominating process this year felt that a third party candidate should hold or have held elective office in order to compete effectively with the Democratic and Republican nominees in a presidential election.
In other words, the ideal candidate of Reform Party "primary" voters is everything Pat Buchanan is not. They are socially liberal free traders who consider experience in elective office to be a qualification for the candidacy.
Further, our polling last summer attached a number to what John McCain's Straight Talk campaign began to expose earlier this year: 52 percent of general election voters said they would consider a third party alternative in 2000 because the current two-party system is not meeting their needs.
But having voters evolve from considering a candidate to voting for a candidate requires credibility in a candidate.
With all this in mind, the big question for the Reform Party is, will Patrick J. Buchanan be its lifeline or its millstone?
Carol A. Arscott and Patrick E. Gonzales are pollsters based in Annapolis. The poll cited in this article can be viewed at their Web site, www.garesearch.com.