Reform Party at daggers drawn in presidential race

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THE PRESIDENTIAL contest between the two main political parties may be well underway, but round two of the fight for the soul - and the money - of America's third political force, the Reform Party, has just begun. And a less prepossessing group of characters could hardly be found.

In the conservative corner are Ross Perot, the shrewish Texas billionaire and Reform Party founder, and his new-found buddy, Pat Buchanan, Republican right-winger and television presenter. In the rebels' corner are Jesse Ventura, the outspoken Governor of Minnesota and former pro-wrestler, and his new-found buddy, Donald Trump, the New York property developer with an unfortunate taste in women.

Round One was a solo round, fought out, largely by proxy, between Messrs Perot and Ventura last month at the Party's annual convention. Mr Perot mustered as many of his supporters to the conference centre on the edge of Detroit as he could, but failed to convince them to remain loyal. Governor Ventura, who remained in Minneapolis through a combination of summer storms and political pique, used a closed-circuit television address to capitalise on his status as the party's only serious electoral success. His favoured candidate for partty chairman, Jack Gargan, was elected and the rules were changed to reduce Mr Perot's chances of becoming the party's next presidential candidate.

The party's increasingly disparate membership backed the Ventura view that Ross Perot, however courageous a contribution he had made to American politics by effectively depriving President George Bush of a second presidential term in 1992 and then founding the Reform Party as a third political force, should on no account be fielded as the party's candidate in 2000, as he would lose. Mr Ventura, though, had reckoned without the comeback quality of the wiry Texan.

Behind the scenes, Mr Perot was forging alliances of his own to take back his party, in fact if not form. Convention corridors were abuzz with rumours that Pat Buchanan, doyen of the Republican Party's conservative right but a hopeless prospect for the party's nomination next year, might be tempted to line up with the Reform Party instead. With Mr Buchanan now reliably believed to be on the verge of joining up with the Perotists, Mr Ventura has been looking out for an ally for himself. He purports to have found one in Donald Trump, a man with a flamboyance to match his own, and - as he sees it - a realistic prospect for the presidency.

Round two between the dour duo and the entertainers may now commence, and it could be vicious. For its real purpose is as a preliminary skirmish for round three in four years.

Mr Perot may belong to the past, but Jesse Ventura has his eyes on his party as a vehicle to convey him to higher office. If Mr Buchanan was already ensconced, with his Catholic traditionalism, his forthright anti- abortionism and his protectionist views on trade, the soul of the party might have fled too far from his own free-thinking radicalism to be coaxed back. Mr Ventura would then be faced with having to build a party of his own or pursuing the lonely (and fund-less) path of an independent.


Donald Trump

The New York property developer, pictured with Melania Knauss, veers between billions and bankruptcy. He is backed by Jesse Ventura as the Reform Party's most electable candidate

Ross Perot

Party founder and failed presidential candidate. His influence is more durable than Ventura calculated

Jesse Ventura

Former pro-wrestler and governor of Minnesota seized control of Reform Party by proxy last month

Pat Buchanan

Right-wing Republican with presidential ambitions who wants the state subsidy theParty could bring him