The prospect of Patrick J. Buchanan or Donald Trump becoming the Reform Party’s presidential nominee is beginning to make some party officials feel a little uncomfortable. They want other choices.
Mr. Buchanan, the fiery trade-protectionist crusader who wants to slap a 15 percent tariff on most imported goods, is a candidate for the party’s nomination. Mr. Trump, the flamboyant, ego-driven real-estate tycoon, has been meeting with party activists around the country, but is undecided though a top aide says there is now “a 7 in 10 chance he will run.” Both men are building campaign staffs and developing coalitions of support for their candidacies.
“But there is an underlying sentiment within the party for another candidate,” said Michael Farris, the influential chairman of the party’s Presidential Nominating Committee. “I think people in the party want to have a highly visible candidate who can compete against Gore and Bush,” he told me.
Mr. Farris, a former California state chairman and a respected party leader, doesn’t exactly say so, but others in the party privately say both men are so controversial, carrying such high negatives in public polls, that it is impossible that a plurality of Americans, let alone a majority, would ever consider either one of them a reasonable alternative to the two major-party nominees.
Mr. Farris told me he and others in the party are looking for someone else. “They’re looking for someone who is going to thoughtfully challenge the establishment candidates.”
Translation: These are not candidates who have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting much more than the 5 percent to 6 percent of the vote that the polls give them now.
The squirming in the ranks is understandable. Mr. Buchanan sparked a furor with his latest book in defense of isolationism, suggesting that Adolf Hitler was misunderstood by Winston Churchill and the Allies, and that the Nazi megalomaniac really had no intentions of conquering Western Europe.
Then he picked Lenora Fulani, a black radical Marxist socialist, to be the national co-chairman of his campaign because she has some followers in the Reform Party.
Mr. Trump is a casino operator with a vast fortune who has no experience in government. He is liberal on social issues and conservative on fiscal issues, but his idea of imposing a huge tax on the rich to pay off the $5 trillion federal debt is looney.
Mr. Farris is not the only one who wants more choices. Dean Barkley, a top Reform Party strategist who helped elect Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, agrees that many in the ranks are dissatisfied with their current choices.
“I think there is sentiment around the country that we would like to have more options than we do now,” Mr. Barkley told me.
Publicly, Mr. Ventura remains neutral in the contest, though it is no secret he wants Mr. Trump to run to keep Mr. Buchanan from becoming the nominee. In fact, Mr. Trump and Mr. Ventura, who is the party’s highest elected official, plan to meet next month when the real-estate mogul addresses the Chamber of Commerce in Minneapolis next month.
“There will be no endorsement,” Mr. Barkley told me, though an insider says the two men will likely “compare notes” on strategies to block Mr. Buchanan from getting the nomination.
Can Mr. Trump, who has no political base, beat the blustery Mr. Buchanan, who has a national following? Mr. Barkley thinks so. “Pat’s got a head start, but I think Trump can catch up,” he says. Mr. Trump has invited the entire hierarchy of the party to a huge gala party next month at his palatial home in Mar-a-Lago, Fla., to assess his strength.
Both men have begun work on signature drives in states where the Reform Party is not on the ballot. Mr. Buchanan has hired ace ballot expert Matt Sawyer, who guided Ross Perot’s ballot-access campaign in ‘96. Mr. Trump will begin collecting signatures to get on the ballot after the first of the year.
But in the end, money will be the great leveler in this contest. “The Donald” has plenty of it; Mr. Buchanan is far short of what he needs. Ballot-access petition drives in 21 states could run between $6 million and $8 million. The cost of getting voters to request and send in their nominating ballots will be another $10 million.
Mr. Buchanan just won Federal Election Commission approval to obtain $2.5 million in matching public funds for the money he raised seeking the GOP nomination before he bolted from the party. Whether he can raise the rest of the money he needs is the big question. Mr. Trump, of course, can pay for all his costs out of pocket.
Looming over the entire fight is Mr. Perot, who has said nothing about these two men or his own intentions. “He hasn’t ruled out running and he hasn’t ruled it in,” says his close aide, party chairman Russell Verney.
Most Reform Party officials, including Maryland Reform Party chairman Elizabeth Christman, think he will not run. But if he did, and if the political circumstances were right, “Perot could win the nomination,” she says.