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.
According to sources familiar with Buchanan's thinking, Pitchfork Pat sees three key constituencies that, added to social and religious conservatives, will make up his "new coalition" for the third-party effort: Perot independents, Buchanan Democrats and old-line, Meany-style trade unionists. To cement that coalition, Buchanan wants to have as his Reform VP candidate a labor Democrat with anticommunist and protectionist views (there have already been preliminary discussions with one such prominent Dem, but the identity of that person is a closely held secret).
"Look, Pat has already made the psychological break with the Republican Party in his head," says a prominent conservative strategist who knows Buchanan well. "He thinks the Republican establishment screwed him out of the nomination in '96, which is in part why he stepped up his populist attacks on multinational corporations in the past four years--in this case, his pique and his ideology coincide. This year again he thinks he's being unfairly screwed," by GOP rules changes in a number of states. The Reform candidate will get $12.5 million in public funds to jump-start the campaign. And if Buchanan polls well, he'd likely win the place he covets in TV's presidential debates: Already a Schroth and Associates national poll of a thousand voters taken August 15-17 shows Buchanan drawing 16 percent of the vote in a three-way race (with Bush at 39 and Al Gore at 35).
There is, of course, opposition within the Reform Party to a Buchanan candidacy--and it's not confined to the Minnesota mafia around Ventura. Says Michael Novosel, who was the party's southeast regional representative and treasurer of the Georgia Reform Party: "Don't forget that it was the Republicans' move to the right on religion that pushed a lot of Reformers out of the GOP. If Buchanan came into our party, it would be the beginning of the end. He might bring in a lot of people, but half the current ones would leave. And any hope of positioning the party in the center would be over."
To block the Buchanan Brigades from flooding the nominating process, the Venturans have been talking about revising the party rules, which they say they can change by a two-thirds vote of the 150-member Reform National Committee. But a top Perot counselor says, "We've counted noses and they don't have two-thirds," adding that even if they did the Perot camp would challenge such a midstream rules change in court. In fact, the Venturans do not yet have control of the party apparatus. Jack Gargan--the longtime Reform activist from Florida who was elected the party's chairman with Ventura's support at this year's national convention in Dearborn, Michigan, in July--and the other new officers do not officially take office until January 1. And while Perot loyalist Verney has offered to step down by September 1, any delay on Verney's part would be telling. As incoming party treasurer Ronn Young puts it, "The Reform Party is a vehicle looking for a driver," adding that "if we are going to make any rules changes, it has to be done by January 1. After that, it's too late."
If the Ventura forces do manage to change the rules for the nominating process, they would still probably fail. As one Buchananite puts it, "If they lower the drawbridge to let in a candidate like Lowell Weicker, Buchanan still has enough troops that he'll cross over that bridge." After all, at the August 1995 Perot-organized gabfest in Dallas, at which prominent members of both major parties came to kiss Ross's ring, the most enthusiastic reception went to the speech by Buchanan, who received several standing ovations.
Even more problematic for the Ventura people is that they do not yet have a candidate to oppose Buchanan. Ventura has frequently dropped the name of Weicker, the former GOP senator and independent governor of Connecticut. But Weicker doesn't appear to have the fire in the belly for a messy fight against Buchanan: Just before leaving for an extended European vacation, Weicker--asked on MSNBC about his putative Reform candidacy--said, "It's far too soon to call that one. I just got out of politics--do I want to climb back into the ring? I've got to think about that," adding, "I've got time."
But he doesn't. Sources close to Buchanan say his decision will come in "weeks, not months," and as a top Ventura operative, Phil Madsen, puts it, "Weicker is not acting like a candidate, doesn't have a treasurer or committee. He came out firmly in favor of banning handguns--that's not a position that will come out well in the Reform Party. It directly contradicts Jesse's conceal-and-carry position. When asked, Weicker says, I don't know if I want to be President. He's not doing anything to make me think he'd be a strong candidate for the Reform Party." (The Schroth poll shows Weicker drawing only 4 percent in a three-way national race, not good enough to meet the 5 percent threshold for continued funding by the FEC in 2004.)
Ventura and his crew are also bogged down in Minnesota politics and passing the Governor's programs, including a major fight to change the two-house state legislature to a unicameral one. Or, as Madsen put it, "The thing we've spent the past two days on in the Ventura camp is where do we get the lime-green paint to cover our state-fair booth." And Ventura's campaign manager, Dean Barkley, acknowledges that the Minnesota mafia is hardly ready to repel boarders: "If he jumps in now, it's first set, advantage Buchanan," he admits.
In his final public appearance before he left for a vacation until Labor Day--on conservative Bob Grant's WOR radio talk show in New York--Buchanan seemed to be edging even closer to a formal break with the GOP. Grant, who is planning his own independent candidacy for senator from New Jersey and who talked with Buchanan after the program, says, "I've known Pat for a very long time, and in my gut I think he's really going to do it [seek the Reform nomination]." And the Buchanan Brigades are ready--as their leader likes to say--to "lock 'n' load."