- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2001

The challenge for Reform Party leaders as they convene in Nashville, Tenn., today is how to revamp and revive a party that has gone from force to farce.
Since 1992, when party founder and presidential candidate Ross Perot received 19 percent of the vote and helped set the post-election agenda for both parties, the party has fallen to 8 percent of the vote for Mr. Perot in 1996 and to less than 1 percent for candidate Patrick J. Buchanan last year.
Last year's election performance ended a fractious year for the party. The February 2000 meeting in Nashville featured a full-blown fistfight in the hallways between two factions of the party. That led to two separate nominating conventions that produced two nominees, Mr. Buchanan and John Hagelin, each of whom claimed to be the party's nominee and wanted the $12.6 million in federal elections money.
The party also lost two of its biggest names. Mr. Perot has avoided party events recently, and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who used to be the party's highest-ranking office holder, has disavowed his affiliation with the party.
"I think the Reform Party is, to all intents and purposes, dead as a vehicle for reform," said David Gillespie, a professor at Presbyterian College in South Carolina who studies third parties.
By failing to garner at least 5 percent of the vote, Mr. Buchanan, a Reagan White House official who bolted the Republican Party, has cost the party any federal financial support before the 2004 election. The party's treasury has about $2,000, said Gerald Moan, the party's current chairman, who is running for re-election.
But Mr. Moan and other party leaders say they can come back.
"The Reform Party indeed has seen some difficult times," says Daniel Jay Charles, the convention committee chairman who is seeking the national chairmanship this year. "We had really disappointing results from last year's election from the presidential level. But what we saw at the local level was encouraging. We had some very good showings in a number of local races."
Mr. Charles and about 300 other party members from across the country will meet through the weekend. They promise a complete re-examination, and maybe a total rewrite, of the party rules and platform.
That, party leaders said, means debate over taking a stand on right to life an issue the party has ducked in the past, and paying attention to state and local races, not just national elections. It also means returning to root issues such as the negative impact immigration and free trade have on American jobs.
Members say that by 2004 those issues will have returned to the fore, bringing voters to the party.
"When union workers wake up one day and they find out they've been laid off, the union doesn't care about them anymore they're not union members, the union's not collecting dues — those are certainly targets for us," Mr. Moan said.
Mr. Buchanan will be the keynote speaker at the convention, where his supporters, the "Buchanan brigades," will show they make up a significant faction of the party. They have joined forces with longtime Perot supporters.
Party members explain the drop-off in votes from 1992 to 2000 in two ways: First, they say Democrats and Republicans have stacked the rules against third parties, particularly by keeping them out of the debates, so few voters are able to learn about alternative parties. Second, they say the natural base of their party, afraid of splitting the vote and delivering Democrats a victory as they did in 1992, voted for President Bush instead of following their hearts by casting ballots for Mr. Buchanan.
For now, party members hope to pay more attention to local races. Members won a few local offices over the last year, which leaders say is evidence the party has possibilities.
Mr. Gillespie said there is a future for independent and third-party candidates, but not through a Reform Party led by Mr. Buchanan. He said voters want a party of the "militant center," anti-inside the Beltway, for drawing down the debt and for campaign finance reform, but not for rocking the boat on social issues.

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