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Not standing Pat

National | Emphasizing trade and economic issues, former social-issues lightning rod sets out on Reform road

Issue: "Taking on the thugs," Nov. 6, 1999

in Washington - Pat Buchanan had an important new speech to deliver, but the P.A. system wasn't cooperating. "Today I'm ending my lifelong membership in the Republican Party," he began, bringing some 350 supporters to their feet with chants of "Go, Pat, Go." Then, almost with the next sentence, his mike began to fade in and out, garbling his message and eliciting howls of protest from the hundreds of reporters packed into the hotel conference room. It was a confused and awkward beginning to Mr. Buchanan's new incarnation as a member of the Reform Party. The fiery social conservative-the man who popularized the phrase "culture war" when he entered the presidential fray in 1992-was joining a party with no social planks in its platform. As he talked up campaign-finance reform and isolationism and downplayed abortion, many longtime supporters were left scratching their heads. Clearly, the microphone wasn't the only thing muddling his message. Mr. Buchanan's Oct. 26 switch to the Reform Party hardly came as a surprise. Ever since his poor showing in the Iowa straw poll, where he came in a distant fifth place, the two-time GOP contender has griped that the Republicans' front-loaded primary schedule favors a well-financed, establishment candidate. As a poorly financed outsider, he was given almost no chance of winning the nomination. "The Republican Party has been good to me, and I have tried to be loyal to it," Mr. Buchanan proclaimed at the press conference. But, he said, quoting John F. Kennedy, "Party loyalty sometimes asks too much of us." He went on to say that the Republicans and Democrats were simply "two wings on the same bird of prey," that both were "addicted to soft money," and that neither was waging the fight to "rescue God's country from the moral pit into which she has fallen." For the rest of his speech, however, Mr. Buchanan seemed to stay as far as he could from that moral pit. Social issues were almost completely absent from the litany of woes he recited in the hour-long press conference. Most tellingly, he never once mentioned the word abortion, opting instead for a single, oblique reference to "that abomination they call Roe v. Wade." Rather than the outspoken pro-lifer that his followers have come to expect, Mr. Buchanan sounded like the anti-candidate: anti-establishment, anti-New World Order, anti-free trade, anti-foreign aid, anti-interventionist, anti-big business, anti-judicial branch, anti-PAC, anti-soft money. As a social conservative in a socially liberal party, Mr. Buchanan's quandary was clear: Too much emphasis on issues like abortion could alienate the Reform Party leadership he has courted assiduously for the past few months. Pat Choate, for instance, the party's pro-abortion vice presidential candidate in 1996, has thrown his support behind a Buchanan bid. Meanwhile, Lenora Fulani, the left-wing, third-party power broker in New York State, said she was leaning toward an endorsement even though "Buchanan and I don't agree on any social issues that I know of." Indeed, other prominent party members have already decided that Mr. Buchanan's pro-life record makes him an unsuitable nominee. Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the Reform Party's highest elected leader, has threatened to withdraw from the party should Mr. Buchanan prevail. To ensure it does not come to that, he has encouraged a bid from real-estate tycoon Donald Trump, who is suitably liberal on abortion and other social issues. Mr. Trump officially switched his registration to the Reform Party the same day that Mr. Buchanan held his press conference. To fend off the New York billionaire, Mr. Buchanan may have to continue soft-pedaling his pro-life stance-the very tactic for which he repeatedly blistered Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential frontrunner. That, in turn, would likely strip away Mr. Buchanan's core support among social conservatives, making him much less of a threat to the eventual Republican nominee. Still, Buchanan strategists see 12.6 million reasons for his risky move to the Reform Party. Should he win the nomination, he will automatically become eligible for $12.6 million in federal funding to spend in the general election. He also wants a podium in next year's presidential debates, which would add instant credibility to his long-shot campaign. Reform Party nominee Ross Perot won a spot in the 1992 debate, but failed to qualify in 1996 due to his poor showing. Everything could break just right for Mr. Buchanan's Reform Party bid: He could hold the party together, keep Mr. Trump out of the race, collect the $12 million, and win a place in the debates. But if he downplays the abortion issue to make it all happen, the loudest microphone in the world may not make some of his original supporters listen to a word he says.

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