A Battle By The Bay?

Folks numbed by the tightly-scripted Republican and Democratic conventions might find this week's Reform Party gathering more to their liking.

"I haven't figured out if I should wear my bald head and feathered boa and boxing gloves to open the convention," joked Gerry Moan, the Reform Party's acting national chairman.

Moan is first to admit that little is set in stone for the Reform Party's national convention when opens in Long Beach, Calif. on Aug. 10 - including whether he will still be chairman. Two days before, Pat Buchanan supporters and Ross Perot loyalists may each seek to replace Moan with someone closer to their own camps at a national party committee meeting.

The Tucson businessman and eight-year party member believes the fact that both sides see him as a threat proves his objectivity. "In that singular endeavor, I've united the party," he said.

Again, Moan is making light of a situation that, at the end of the day, could result in a public relations disaster, since the Reform Party is anything but united heading into its four-day gathering.

First, there's no agreement on whether Buchanan should remain on the party ballot. The party's executive committee has voted to oust Buchanan, because of the way he allegedly collected voters' signatures for his nomination. The investigation was instigated by another Reform Party presidential candidate, John Hagelin.

"What he perpetrated may be the most massive election fraud in this country's political history," said Hagelin.

But Buchanan dismissed the action, calling the whole procedure a hoax and the work of dissidents trying to "steal this nomination from us."

The party's 164-member national committee will also decide that issue when it meets on Tuesday.

On convention eve, as many as 42 state party delegations will arrive in Long Beach, still vying for a seat and voting rights. These states are split between delegates who back Buchanan and rival delegates who oppose his efforts to infuse the party with his socially conservative agenda. Contested delegations will make their cases before a convention credentials committee until the wee hours on Aug. 10, the gathering's opening day.

But they won't be alone in the Long Beach Convention Center on Thursday. According to local event organizer Rich Perelman, the party will begin setting up and decorating the main hall of the convention on late Wednesday, as a food show clears out of there. Because of the party's internal bickering over which city they should hold the convention, the venue could not be reserved until Thursday.

So that gives the Reform Party about 14 hours to prepare their stage for the national spotlight, compared to the weeks and months that go into planning the Republican and Democratic conventions.

"To say that this is 'Mission Impossible' is understating it," said Perelman, who promised the convention hall will be ready on time.

Even without logisical worries and party infighting, the convention's rundown invites spontaneity at every turn, unlike the major party conventions.

Reform Party members are allowed to vote for a nominee by mail or by Internet, but they won't learn the results until after the state-by-state roll call on Friday night. But at that point, the outcome could be overturned with a two-thirds majority vote on the floor.

Once that's settled, vice presidential candidates are nominated on Saturday morning with suggestions from the floor. Those candidates give brief speeches and learn their fate immediately afterwards. No scripts, plenty of drama, promise organizers.

And what about fistfights? When the national party gathered last February in Nashville, the meeting erupted in a shouting and shoving match that brought police to the scene.

Planners concede the most volatile moments may occur on Thursday morning of the convention, when the credentials committee issues its final decision on which delegations will be seated. Those delegates left out, who paid for their travel and lodging expenses themselves, may not go quietly. But they will be allowed to attend the convention, since the sessions are open to the public. Organizers have added additional money to the budget for security and say they are taking the issue seriously.

"Thursday morning could be, I don't want to say confrontational, but it could get intense," said Moan.

The speakers' list at the convention is brief. The two nominees - assuming there are two nominees - will address the delegates on opening night. On Friday evening, Doris "Granny D" Haddock, who walked across America to draw attention to campaign finance reform, will speak, as will former Reform Party Chairman Russell Verney, who's also Ross Perot's spokesperson. Perot, the party's founder, has been invited to attend, but reportedly has no plans to do so. Pat Choate, Perot's 1996 running mate, will speak on Saturday.

When asked about the absence of celebrities and moving personal stories that crowd the schedules of the major party conventions, Moan said the Reform Party would offer Americans a look at "free-spirited debate."

"We are a bunch of activists - not professional politicians that know when you're supposed to smile and clap on cue," he said.