Chaos Theory, Reform Style

U.S. military Stryker vehicles convoy roll down a main highway in a Sunni populated area, Aug. 5, 2006, in Baghdad, Iraq. Several Stryker vehicles were seen Saturday in Baghdad's mostly Sunni neighborhood of Ghazaliyah, where Iraqi police used loudspeakers to encourage residents to go about their business and reopen shops, because the additional troops were there to protect them.
AP Photo/Asaad Mouhsin
There's change afoot in the ailing Reform Party. But so many variables are in play, sometimes it's hard to keep track.

To put it another way, it's hard to know whether the Reform Party is healing itself or breaking into smithereens.

Just to recap: The party has been in a popularity slide since 1992, when presidential candidate and party founder Ross Perot was still a cinderella. More recently, its top elected official, Jesse Ventura, bolted the party in disgust, and Reform rass battled mightily over who was in charge.

And now, conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan is making waves at the state level, working to secure the Reform nomination ahead of the party's August national nominating convention in Long Beach, Calif.

At this point, it looks like Buchanan has a lock on the nomination, and the more than $12 million in federal campaign money that comes with it.

But the Buke's efforts are not being met with complete acceptance among the party rank-and-file. Just this week, the party's longtime spokeswoman, Donna Donovan, quit her post, apparently irked with Buchanan.

On its own, her resignation wouldn't be such a big deal. But Donovan's departure is indicative of the conflicted impulses felt by many of the party faithful.

Donovan is trying to remember why she bothered to join back in 1992. That's why, she says, she has abdicated her position as a national official, preferring instead to remain active in the party's newly formed "Leadership Council," the goal of which is to keep the party of Perot "on message."

Indeed, in the wake of Ventura's high-profile break, many Reformers are wondering how the message took a back seat to the fireworks.

Since JesseGate, other forces have begun to play, and play hard.

Buchanan's political and economic beliefs - protectionism, ballot reform, campaign finance reform - dovetail nicely with the "limited" Reform Party plank, which by design does not delve into social issues. But the Buke's social views are at odds with many old-line Reform Party activists.

"Who are we as the Reform Party to tell Pat Buchanan … you have to do it this way if you want to be the Reform Party candidate," says party vice chairman Gerry Moan.

Moan, who adds that he's not a Buchanan supporter, stresses that party loyalists knew very well what Buchanan was about long before he began to seriously consider defection from the GOP. And they encouraged him as he began to mull the move.

Still, Moan allows that when Buchanan cranks up his social rhetoric, some Reformers might take offense. "I'm sure it would rankle a few folks … but our view is he's going to be talking about the trade issues and political reform."

It's not just Buchanan's social beliefs that have gotten him on the radar screen. Some of his state-level tactics in pursuing the nomination are worrisome to Donovan and others.

Many of Buchanan's foot soldiers have taken advantage of "same-dayregistration rules, quitting the GOP - some only briefly - and taking over Reform Party meetings to push Pat's cause. This has not been lost on many old-line Reformers, who have tried to change the registration rules to protect against these last-minute deluges.

For his part, however, Moan says anything but the same-day policy retards the party's ability to add members.

In some states, like New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Georgia and Illinois, Buchanan's tactics have met with fierce resistance. But in other states - like Nevada, West Virginia and Moan's home state of Arizona - Buchanan's cause seems to have breathed new purpose into what remains of the Reform Party machinery.

From all this, one arrives at the big question: Is this political party, which has floundered since securing 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential election, strong enough to survive? Or will it be ripped to shreds?

Moan, Donovan and others are banking on survival. With the highly publicized Nashville brawl behind them, reformers say brighter days are ahead.

"The wrangling that went on before is a heck of a lot lower and less vociferous than it is now," says Moan.

At least there's a bit of optimism in this political maelstrom.