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Reformers might be first among 3rd parties

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© St. Petersburg Times, published October 27, 1999

Okay, let's spend a paragraph laughing at the Reform Party. The fashion of the times demands it.

Donald Trump! Ha ha! Pat Buchanan! Ho ho! Jesse Ventura! Hee hee! Ross Perot -- are you kidding?

All right. Now that we have had our little laugh, it is time to point out an interesting truth.

The Reform Party is close to passing a test that every other mass-appeal third party of the 20th century failed: declaring independence from the personality of the founder.

Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party in 1912 was little more than a vehicle for Roosevelt.

Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats had their one shot at glory in 1948.

George Wallace was the American Independent Party in 1968.

In contrast, the Reform Party will nominate in 2000, for the third presidential election in a row, a nationally known figure, probably somebody other than the founder.

The Reform Party was the creation of Perot, and he was the party's nominee in 1992 and 1996. He could not let go.

However, at least for the moment, the Reform Party has turned away from Perot. Its highest elected official is Jesse Ventura, the governor of Minnesota. A breakaway from Perot named Jack Gargan is the incoming national chairman.

Rival headline-grabbers Buchanan and Trump say they want to be the party's next nominee. Perot keeps playing coy about whether he will run again himself, but he probably won't. The man demands to be the only fiddle on the stage. He does not play well with others, and he does not want to.

The idea that the Reform Party is a national joke comes largely from Republicans, Democrats and the mainstream media, especially in Washington.

Most of the knocks on the party fall into two general categories:

(1) It lacks a coherent philosophy, careening between Ventura's libertarianism and Buchanan's neo-jingoism.

(2) The big names in the party are kooks.

As for the first criticism: If you convince me that the Republican and Democratic parties have a coherent philosophy, I will eat my hat with ketchup.

The Republican philosophy, as practiced by the party's leadership in Congress, is simply: We Are Against Whatever Clinton Is For.

The Democratic philosophy, as practiced by Clinton, is indecipherable.

At least the Reform Party is united by the overarching theme of campaign reform. It is a campaign about campaigns. That Ventura and Buchanan are poles apart no more discredits the party than Mitch McConnell telling his fellow Republican, John McCain to get stuffed on McCain-Feingold.

As for Ventura, Buchanan, Trump and Perot being kooks: Compared to what?

Is Trump less qualified than Steve Forbes? Than Dan Quayle? Than Warren Beatty or Oprah?

Ventura has the same qualification on paper as George W. Bush: He is the governor of a state. He was pronounced politically dead after his shoot-off-the-mouth interview with Playboy -- by many of the experts who said he would never be elected in the first place.

Kooky or not, Buchanan has done something that no other candidate in the presidential race has: He has won the New Hampshire primary.

I am not endorsing the Reform Party. I am not saying Buchanan and Ventura have the gravitas to be president (you know, like Clinton). The party is young, disorganized and wild. It still might fall apart.

But as I said, none of the mass-appeal third parties in this century have succeeded. They could not move beyond their founder. The last time anybody pulled it off was in the mid-1800s. It, too, was a new party made up of dissidents, extremists and zealots. It was not at all clear it would survive. They called themselves. ... Republicans.

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