In Washington, a city in which (to borrow a phrase from Virginia Woolf) all is gossip, corruption and chatter, the end-of-summer buzz has been about Pat Buchanan and whether he’ll bolt the Republicans to seek the Reform Party presidential nomination. It is now clear–based on interviews with leading conservatives, Buchananites and Reform leaders of the Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura factions–that Buchanan is only millimeters away from announcing his bid to take over the Reform Party. What’s more, Minnesota Governor Ventura and his people, who oppose making Buchanan the Reform standard-bearer, are completely unprepared to deny him the nomination. Here’s why:
Two days after the GOP presidential straw poll in Ames, Iowa–at which Buchanan delivered a slashing attack on the Republican establishment for selling out on everything from NAFTA and trade with China to Kosovo, abortion and immigration–the conservative columnist and TV commentator convened a meeting of his top advisers to discuss his future. Those joining the brainstorming at Buchanan’s McLean, Virginia, home included his sister Bay, campaign director Jay Townsend, treasurer Scott Mackenzie and two wealthy Buchananites: former Reagan Customs Commissioner William von Raab and South Carolina-based textile baron Roger Milliken (who participated by speakerphone). With the exception of the candidate’s wife, who kept her counsel, the recommendation was unanimous: Buchanan should go third-party and seek the Reform nomination. Three days later, an e-mail went out to Reformers soliciting support for a Reform Party Draft Committee for Buchanan, with von Raab as chairman.
Billionaire Steve Forbes’s sharp turn to the right since he lost the GOP contest in ’96 and his purchase of many Christian Coalition organizers in key states have undercut Buchanan’s Republican primary base, as has the candidacy of social conservative Gary Bauer–not only did Buchanan trail the diminutive Bauer in Ames, he’s also been reduced to single digits in polls in New Hampshire, where he scored an upset victory four years ago. With a multicandidate field dividing the anti-George W. Bush vote, Pat’s chances of winning primaries this year are, his advisers concluded, nil.
By contrast, the Reform Party nomination appears wide open. Under current rules, the party’s nominee is to be selected by mail ballot starting next July 4, and ending at the party’s August convention. While the party is officially on the ballot in only twenty states, any presidential candidate who collects enough signatures to qualify as an independent in enough of the other states to win a hypothetical majority of electoral votes gets the right to have Reform ballots mailed to those signatories. In other words, the Buchanan Brigades can stuff the Reform process with his supporters.
Furthermore, the Buchananites say that, under Federal Election Commission rules, they can qualify for federal matching funds to contest for the Reform nomination simply by filing a change of party with the FEC–and get credit for the money Buchanan has already raised for the GOP nomination into the bargain. And the Buchananites could easily set up independent expenditure committees to sign up Reform members and do voter registration, which would not be subject to FEC contribution caps, allowing rich supporters like Milliken and von Raab (a polo player of inherited wealth, whose new wife, according to the London Observer, is worth $6 billion) to fund the Reform takeover with all the super-soft money they like.
Finally, in a deal brokered by 1996 Reform vice presidential nominee Pat Choate (a Buchanan chum and, like him, an economic nationalist), Ross Perot himself is quietly supporting Buchanan’s Reform candidacy. A strait-laced lifestyle conservative who is also thin-skinned and vindictive, Perot detests the flamboyant Ventura, both for his feather-boa-wearing and pot-smoking past and for his public criticisms of the tiny Texan. Perot sees the Buchanan candidacy as the perfect way to give the Minnesota governor his comeuppance. “Ross genuinely likes Pat, and they agree on all the issues Ross really cares about,” says one of Perot’s closest confidants, adding that Choate’s very public drum-beating for a Buchanan Reform candidacy has Perot’s “tactical approval,” even though Perot feels that as the party’s founder he should not yet take a public position in favor of one candidate (outgoing party chairman Russell Verney, a Perot loyalist, is also secretly on board for Buchanan). And there are still enough Perotbots in the Reform Party to strengthen a Buchanan bid significantly.