Commentary: As The Reform Party Implodes, Who Wins?

The surest proof of the decline of the Reform Party wasn't its Feb. 12 national committee slugfest in Nashville. Nor was it Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura's bitter departure a day earlier. Instead, it can be found in the attitudes of ordinary folk like Paul Biery, a 65-year-old Vietnam vet from Columbia, S.C. "I voted for [Ross] Perot twice. I loved his craziness," the retired U.S. Army officer says. But now, Biery has a new populist champion--Republican John McCain. "Reform Party people will definitely vote for McCain," predicts Biery, as he catches a McCain event at Columbia's Beth Shalom synagogue.

Perot's Reform Party organization may be dying, but the splinter movement spawned by the eccentric Texas billionaire is very much alive. And the millions of former Perot followers like Biery could play a crucial role in selecting the next President. Who stands to profit most? The betting: McCain gets the best odds at this stage of the campaign. But if he fails to win the Republican nomination, then many may go to Vice-President Al Gore.

MCCAIN MANIA. McCain, a war hero and former prisoner of war, has won high praise from the Dallas maverick in the past. In New Hampshire, McCain trounced George W. Bush by more than 2-to-1 among voters who said they'd consider backing a Reform Party candidate in November. Focus groups conducted by GOP pollster Frank I. Luntz, who worked briefly for Perot in 1992, show similar leanings in other primary states. "They're voting for McCain en masse," says Luntz. "It's what's making McCain so viable nationwide." Even newly installed Reform Party boss Pat Choate (who dismisses the Arizona senator as a "counterfeit reformer") acknowledges that McCain's message of campaign-finance reform mixed with patriotism "resonates with the public."

For erstwhile Perot backers, McCain's attack on big money, big corporations, and tax cuts for the wealthy--and his fusion of pro-military patriotism and social libertarianism--are compelling. McCain "sounds more like a Reform Party candidate than anyone else running," says Victor Moffitt, chairman of the Rhode Island Reform Party. So if McCain rides this wave of support from independents to victory in the GOP primaries, he'll probably command their votes in the general election against likely Democratic nominee Gore as well. According to a Feb. 9-10 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll, McCain would trounce Gore among independent voters, 55% to 28%.

But what if the recent concerted effort of Republican power brokers to stop McCain's candidacy is successful? With McCain out of the race, these reformers--most of whom had once called the Republican Party home--are more likely to defect to the Gore camp, just as many voted for Bill Clinton over Bob Dole in 1996. The reason: As "radical centrists," a description Perot coined for his party members, they just haven't been happy with the GOP's sharp shift to the right on social issues or the party's negativism and inability to work out compromises.

Bush, who recently lurched to the right on such issues as abortion, could face particular problems with independent-minded younger voters. They defy party labels, resent partisan pettiness, and endorse quirky outsiders like Ventura. Says independent Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus: "If Bush resorts to the traditional, old-style Republican attack politics, the people [who voted for Perot in 1992] will rally to Gore." Or, just as bad, they will sit out the election. Since many had once been Republicans, that would likely hurt Bush far more than Gore.

Moreover, reformers who don't like Gore may hurt Bush anyway by lining up behind the eventual Reform Party nominee. Nationalist rabble-rouser Pat Buchanan, for example, would battle Bush for anti-abortion true believers and right-wing populists in the South and industrial Midwest. "Buchanan would draw 2-to-1 from the Republicans," predicts American University political scientist James A. Thurber. Even a small Buchanan vote in states such as Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, or North Carolina could tip the balance toward Gore.

Meanwhile, back at the Reform ranch, the once-and-future party leadership is trying to restore peace to a bickering bunch of fractured factions. These internal machinations are of little consequence to the 2000 Presidential race. But Paul Biery and the huge bloc of former Perot supporters still could wield the kind of clout that the leaders of the dying party can only wish they still had.

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