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The Reform Party's two-ring circus leaves town

(TIME.com) -- Turns out there's a good reason why John McCain's still a Republican. Why Nader went with the Greens. Why Jesse Ventura sits unaffiliated in Minnesota, and why former Connecticut senator Lowell Weicker and New York mogul-o-maniac Donald Trump stayed on the sidelines. Why Ross Perot, according to his assistant, is "out of the country."

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The Reform party is radioactive.

The parking signs at the Long Beach Convention Center said it all: "Reform Parking," this way. "Hagelin Parking," that way.

This way were the Buchananites, in the center's main hall, led by the former Nixon crony who rails against illegal immigrants, gays, affirmative action, free trade, abortion rights, interventionist foreign policy and the "judicial dictatorship in America." Buchanan's running mate: Ezola Foster, a former typing teacher and current John Birch Society member who may be the only African-American living in L.A. who supported LAPD officers Stacy Koons and Larry Powell when they were charged with violating Rodney King's civil rights by beating him to a pulp. And if that weren't disturbing enough, she looks like a cross between Tammy Faye Bakker and Eartha Kitt.

  MESSAGE BOARD
 

That way, around the corner in the Performing Arts theater, was the group now led by John Hagelin, a nuclear physicist who believes wind power and transcendental meditation are the way to start solving the country's problems. Hagelin, a soft-spoken professor at Maharishi University who is getting his first taste this week of national media exposure, has adopted most of Ross Perot's platform and won the support of most of the Texas billionaire's supporters. He plans to merge his current presidential candidacy with the Natural Law party with the Reform banner, rise above the current fray and pull a Jesse Ventura on an American electorate that he says is thirsting for an alternative. His running mate: Nat Goldhaber, multimillionaire founder and former CEO of dot-com Cybergold, Inc. (Goldhaber, by the way has been diplomatically sidestepping questions about whether he will use some of his own money to boost his and Hagelin's cause.) It is not particularly complimentary to say that of the two rival tickets, Hagelin's is by far the more electable.

Not that these four were the only oddballs in town this week. There was Lenora Fulani, the ultra-leftist African-American independent politico and former Buchanan bedfellow, leading her entourage of New York delegates away from the Buchanan camp, into the Hagelin mini-convention, then back into the Buchanan side of the Reform convention seeking a larger walk-out of dissidents. There was an obese, half-naked Long Beach resident named "Ski" Demski, who entered the convention hall with his massive belly depicting tattoos of an American eagle while his back was adorned with a large flag. There was another fellow carrying around a sign that read "Nominate Jimmy Carter to Unite the Reform Party." And there was Jim Bourassa, founding chairman of the Arizona Reform party, who wears on his jacket not a political button but a large photograph of recently-deceased actor Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Bourassa says the photo gives him otherworldly powers to wrest political might away from Buchanan. "We're using the Force to save the party," he says with a straight face. "I am Arizona's Luke Skywalker." Well, if John McCain's not using that shtick anymore...

In his Saturday night acceptance speech, Buchanan welcomed his audience to "the last red-meat convention in America" and unspooled one of his witty and undeniably well-turned tirades against the "godless New World Order," the "gods of the global economy" and the "Visigoths and Vandals of multiculturalism." Simultaneously, Hagelin was sounding softer -- and considerably more soporific -- notes in his acceptance speech, steering clear of social issues in the Perot tradition and calling on his audience of delegates and supporters in a decidedly more new-agey call to arms. "This is your party," he told the cheering crowd. "Breathe strength into it. Grow it into America's next major party."

After the shoving, after the shouting, after the standoffs with security and the run-ins with Long Beach police, the principals on both sides of the fray did their best to gaze into a glorious electoral future with a straight face. And the next chapter in this two-roads-diverged saga is the $12.6 million lifeblood in federal matching funds, which both Reform parties insist is rightfully theirs.

Hagelin drafted a complaint to the FEC earlier in the week claiming Buchanan used fraudulent means to win the Reform party election. The Buchanan camp has up to 15 days to answer the charges before the FEC makes its decision, but Pat Choate, Perot's 1996 running mate and now a friend of the Buchanan campaign, feels Hagelin's complaint is a non-issue. "Pat will have certification from the duly elected party chairman and treasurer that the FEC recognizes. That's that. The money will come quick and if it doesn't, we'll just pop it in straight into federal court. It will move very fast and there will be no bumps in the road."

Then there's the little matter of the November election. "It's pretty clear where the chips have fallen," says Hagelin in his best physicist-professor monotone. "There's the Reform party and there's a Buchanan Reform party. The Buchanan Reform party will probably manage to seize ballot access in 25 states or so, while I'll maintain the Reform party ballot access in the others as a candidate plus other state ballot access as a candidate with the Natural Law party."

"The best-case scenario for my campaign now," says Hagelin, "is that we get those federal matching funds, we conduct a high-profile and dynamic campaign, and we get swept into office the same way Jesse Ventura did. We have three months, and a brush fire is already building. There are no limits to what we can accomplish in this election season."

For a scientist, he is definitely talking miracles. Many national polls had Mr. Buchanan pulling less than 2 percent of the popular vote and Mr. Hagelin less than 1 percent, and the popular impression of this week's madness as a meaningless two-ring carnival is unlikely to lend the two comabatants any additional credibility. (In one of the festivities' few moments of self-awareness, Reform elder statesman Russell Verney described the big picture thusly with mordant humor: "It's a close one, all right. John Hagelin is within one point of Pat Buchanan.")

Buchanan himself summed up the week's madness in a historical perspective: "Look, people forget these things in a week," he said. He recalled violence outside the Democrats' 1968 convention in Chicago and said, "Compared to that, this is high tea at Buckingham Palace." Adds Choate: "All the publicity is bad because it suggests a certain chaos," he says. "The Reform party's public image was badly hurt this week, but fortunately in American politics most controversies have a half-life of two weeks."

Of course, the same might be said about radioactive third parties.

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


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Monday, August 14, 2000


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