- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2000

LONG BEACH, Calif. Ross Perot has parachuted from the plummeting Reform Party that he founded and personified in two presidential elections.

Mr. Perot, who won 19 million votes in 1992 and 8 million votes in 1996, is "traveling for business" and has no plans to attend this week's convention, said Russ Verney, founding chairman of the party.

The party that remains is beset by bitter fighting between supporters of Patrick J. Buchanan and those of John Hagelin, a physicist who once taught at Maharishi University.

"The party is essentially Ross Perot's gift to America," Mr. Verney said yesterday before the party's family feud degenerated into dueling committee meetings at hotels two blocks apart.

"Since 1996, he's taken a step back to let those of us, the members of the party, build it the way we want," Mr. Verney said.

"We don't believe Ross Perot will seek public office again," he added.

The Reform Party sent Mr. Perot an invitation to its convention, which begins tomorrow in Long Beach. Mr. Perot has not responded.

"If you know Ross Perot, he's a man of his own will," said Gerry Moan, current chairman of the Reform Party.

"I'd love to see him come and address the convention. He's the leader, at least the moral compass, right now.

"That's why this convention is important, because we're in transition," he said. "The Perot faction has been without a leader. Nobody knows what Ross Perot is thinking."

The Reform Party already was in trouble before the fight between supporters and opponents of Mr. Buchanan.

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura quit the party in February. Tycoon Donald Trump, another household name, briefly considered a run for the Reform Party nomination but decided against it.

Mr. Perot never won any electoral votes, but he was a key factor in President Clinton's victories. In 1996 Mr. Perot won more than 400,000 votes in each of three key swing states Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida helping the president prevail.

It is unlikely the Reform Party will have such an effect in 2000. But some party members say Mr. Perot's absence will permit necessary growing pains.

"As one of the founders of the Reform Party, I am not waiting for Perot," said Lenora Fulani, who initially embraced and then broke from Mr. Buchanan's campaign.

"Those of us on the ground, at the grass roots, have continued to build off what Perot helped to create."

Some party members believe Mr. Perot could be a unifying presence. But they are not looking to the Texas billionaire for salvation.

Jeff Hillebrandt of Manchester, Ky., a corrections officer at a federal prison, sported five Perot buttons on his vest yesterday. One featured a caricature of Mr. Perot and the slogan "Ross for Boss."

But Mr. Hillebrandt is ready to move on. He initially supported Mr. Trump for president but now backs Mr. Buchanan.

"I feel like Perot hasn't done anything" recently to help the party, Mr. Hillebrandt said. "I still respect him as the founder of the party."

Tim Shaw, a night manager of a Philadelphia supermarket who sports a mane of long brown hair and a Black Sabbath tattoo, wants the Reform Party to start over. Mr. Shaw suggests that the party run no candidate this year.

Joe Landry of Lapeer County, Mich., a retired auto worker for General Motors, said Mr. Perot "deserves all he credit in the world for establishing the Reform Party.

"But it's been a top-down party," Mr. Landry said. "Now it's becoming a bottom-up party."

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