Reform Party future in doubt as convention begins
by Lawrence Kootnikoff
LONG BEACH, California, Aug 9 (AFP) - The United States' newest upstart political force is readying its convention here amid arguments, shoving and wrangling over the Reform Party's presidential nomination, and its future.
The party desperately wants to avoid the fate of other third parties in US history which have burned bright for a short time before being extinguished, only to leave the Democrats and Republicans in charge.
But Reform's future seems in doubt already, with long-time members denouncing a "hostile takeover" by supporters of arch-conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan.
The four-day event starts Thursday. But the fireworks started early as the party loudly imploded Tuesday into two factions at an explosive national committee meeting, with longstanding members storming out in protest threatening legal action.
"The Reform Party is being ... taken over by the Buchanan brownshirts," shouted National Secretary Jim Mangia outside the meeting.
The party was founded by Texas billionaire Ross Perot after his failed 1992 presidential bid, when he gave Democrats and Republicans a fright by scoring 19 percent of the vote. In 1996 he took nine percent, enough for Reform's 2000 nominee to qualify for 12.6 million dollars in matching government campaign funds.
And while the party is at a paltry four percent now, control of that cash is a rich incentive for both sides to keep or gain control.
The party began as an attempt to shake up the United States' rigid, institutionalized political system, dominated for years by the Republican and Democratic parties, and by deep-pocketed lobbyists. Reformers have always been an eclectic mix of conservatives, leftists and libertarians.
But religious conservatives have flocked to the party since Buchanan -- a former speech writer for President Richard Nixon -- bolted the Republicans last year to seek the Reformers' presidential nod. Buchanan says he wants to turn the faction-riven Reform Party into a party of true conservatives.
"I think you will see at Long Beach the fact that this is a Buchanan party, (a) conservative party," he said on Sunday.
But keeping Reform viable could be a tall order, analysts say. The current infighting "is not too unusual for third parties," said political scientist Barbara Sinclair of the University of California, Los Angeles.
"This is very much the typical fate of third parties in the US," Sinclair said. "They can do well under certain kinds of extraordinary circumstances, as was the case with Perot in '92. But they haven't got legs."
Perot is not running in 2000. But his loyalists oppose the former Republican. They accuse Buchanan, who is far more conservative than Perot on social issues, of splitting the party and orchestrating a takeover of state parties. But amid Tuesday's fireworks, it was unclear whether the committee was able to consider charges of ballot fraud leveled against Buchanan.
On July 29, the party's executive -- dominated by anti-Buchananites -- voted to disqualify him from the party's primary ballot. But Buchanan supporters dismissed the charges. "We have overwhelmed them without question from day one," said Bay Buchanan, the candidate's sister and campaign co-chair. "Those who lost are unwilling to accept the fact."
The struggle is being closely watched by both Democratic and Republican campaigns because Buchanan's fate may have an impact on the contest between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush.
If Reformers reject Buchanan, it will be good news for Bush because it would secure his right flank. That would be bad for Gore, who faces a challenge from the left from Green Party candidate and consumer activist Ralph Nader, who polls around seven percent and who is not expected to drop out of the race.
But Reform may have peaked already, Sinclair suggests. "These third parties do their best in summer," she said. "Then as the election gets closer people tend to go home" to the traditional parties.