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CAMPAIGN 2000 | NEWS ANALYSIS

Heirs to Perot Fighting for Money, and Survival

Convention: Split in Reform Party may signal its demise, owing to the bitter Buchanan-Hagelin feud.

August 11, 2000|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

The police and the lawyers showed up before most of the delegates at this week's Reform Party convention. Maybe someone should have called in the coroner as well.

The once-mighty alternative to the two major parties, which in its first incarnation in 1992 commanded the votes of nearly 1 in 5 Americans, appears to be in its death throes.

Not surprisingly, the heirs are angrily wrestling over the lucrative estate.

While still technically alive, the Reform movement is suffering the fate of every third party established in the United States since the Republican Party was founded in 1860. Political analysts say the surprise, to some extent, is that Reform even made it to its third presidential election.

"What I think we see is the traditional fate of American third parties," said Robert Loevy, a Colorado College political scientist. "It's slowly running out of gas."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 9, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 5 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Republican Party--An Aug. 11 article incorrectly stated the year the Republican Party was founded. It was founded in 1854.

Whether it manages to revive depends on several unknowns. One is whether the party's performance in November is substantial enough to qualify it for federal funds in the 2004 election. Another is the disposition of $12.5 million in federal money awarded after the 1996 election that is currently being claimed by the party's two factions.

Even if it comes back to life, it will resemble only in name the organization Ross Perot birthed in 1992 with his flush bank accounts and his fresh and blunt-speaking candidacy.

Former Republican Pat Buchanan, who is poised to collect one Reform Party nomination this weekend, insisted that he and his supporters are building "a new Reform Party." (Perennial Natural Law Party candidate John Hagelin will win a competing nomination from the anti-Buchanan faction.)

Founding leader Russ Verney, talking to reporters Thursday, essentially threw in the towel on the original party's national aspirations. Reformers, he said, will have to rebuild at the state level.

"This is simply one more vivid chapter in our brief but turbulent life," he said, a bit ruefully.

Vivid, this week, has meant police patrolling the party's national committee meeting Tuesday, guarding the party leaders not from protesters but from each other. That day ended with one faction--claiming its loyalty to Perot--being locked out, screaming, by the pro-Buchanan forces. Lawyers, meanwhile, filed challenges aimed at controlling the $12.5 million.

While running competing conventions, the sparring camps have staged running shouting matches through the week. Thursday passed relatively calmly, its contentious highlight being the Hagelin forces' march on the Buchananites. That ended in a peaceable standoff at the convention center, the Buchanan forces sunning themselves outside on the orders of their leaders, and the anti-Buchanan forces inside singing a highly abridged version of "We Shall Overcome."

While perhaps more colorful than the demise of most third parties, the Reform Party decline was predictable. Third parties are like hurricanes, formed in a quirky collision of disparate events and, usually, dying off quickly.

"The fate of all third parties, except the Republicans in 1860, is one where the most notable figure in the party disappears and factions emerge over the remains of the coalition, and those fragments do battle," said Steve Rosenstone, a liberal arts dean at the University of Minnesota who has studied reform movements.

The Reform Party movement was born in the 1992 presidential campaign, when many voters were troubled by a slumping economy and disillusioned by both Democratic candidate Bill Clinton and Republican incumbent George Bush.

Perot shot to the lead of the race in the spring and then, suddenly, left the race during the Democratic convention in July. He reentered the contest in the fall and ultimately won almost 20% of the national vote.

After 1992, Perot took the structure of his United We Stand organization and turned it into the Reform Party. But he won only 8% of the popular vote in 1996, when Clinton trounced Republican Bob Dole.

Perot declined to run this year. And while he might have been able to smooth over some of the recent disputes, political observers believe that even he would have had a tough time in 2000.

Much of the party's early success stemmed from Perot's fresh face, his compelling personal story, and his tough talk about lifting the hood of America and fixing what ailed her engine.

A study of Reform supporters conducted by government professor Ron Rapoport of Virginia's College of William & Mary found that more than 70% of those who backed Perot in 1992 left the movement by 1996.

In California, Reform Party votes dwindled to fewer than 35,000 in the 1998 governor's race, less than 0.5% of the state electorate.

"The Reform Party was simply built around the personality of Ross Perot," said GOP consultant Sal Russo, who briefly worked for the Texas billionaire during the 1992 campaign. "There wasn't a unifying issue other than a frustration with Washington--and when you take the personality of Ross Perot out of it, there's just nothing left."

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