Buchanan is tipped to join Reform Party

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The Independent Online
A POTENTIALLY harmful spat has broken out in the Republican Party over reports that Pat Buchanan, an outsider in the race for the party's presidential nomination, is preparing to join the Reform Party, founded by Ross Perot.

The reports, which alluded to contacts between the staff of Mr Buchanan and the Reform Party's new leadership, were immediately dismissed by Mr Buchanan as part of a dirty tricks campaign launched against him by Republican rivals - who would include the early favourite for the nomination, George W Bush.

Mr Buchanan, a conservative whose curriculum vitae includes spells as a senior aide to former presidents Nixon and Reagan and recently as a prominent talk-show host, has little chance of winning the party's nomination. With a loyal following of his own he does, however, have the capacity to be a dangerous enemy.

The dispute began earlier this week when the Associated Press reported that Mr Buchanan was considering leaving the Republican Party to join the Reform Party, with a view to becoming that party's candidate for the presidency.

The report made clear that Mr Buchanan was not expected to make a final decision until the autumn, but said that one factor would be his showing in next weekend's Republican `straw poll' in Iowa.

The `straw poll' - an entirely open forum in which the candidates solicit votes - is seen as a gauge of the candidates' early standing. And while Mr Bush is confidently expected to win, a sweeping victory could convince at least some of his rivals to abandon their bids. The poll is also expected to show how far Mr Bush has succeeded in neutralising the party's conservative wing - and one indicator will be the strength of support for Mr Buchanan.

In the previous presidential campaign, Mr Buchanan alarmed the eventual Republican nominee, Robert Dole, by beating him into second place in the New Hampshire primary. This time, however, the scare could be different.

The Reform Party, which did poorly in the 1996 election, is trying for a revival and one idea being canvassed is to co-opt a presidential candidate from outside the party. Were Mr Buchanan to accept the Reform Party's nomination, the whole dynamic of the 2000 election could change. A reinvigorated "third" party could divide the Republican vote and possibly - as happened in 1992 - deprive the Republicans of victory. That is what the Bush camp fears most.