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These, at least, are sincere men (with judgment pending on the apolitical Trump), and they all fill what for Ventura is a necessary bill for the party: They're a breed apart. Buchanan, for all his posturing, is a political animal, a politician's politician. He happens to be a grassroots rabble-rouser because it keeps him on TV and sells books, and because no one else much wants to be one. He has the give-'em-hell attitude to excite the Reform party's lunatic fringe, and comes with his own built-in constituency — a rabid band of anti-abortion, pro-prayer protectionists who are fightin' mad over the Republicans' slow-but-insistent move back to the center under George W. Bush. With a Reform party nod, Buchanan gets a brand-new pan-partisan forum for his populism — in his third go-round, his act is wearing thin with GOP voters — and a brand-new war chest. (Thanks to Perot's 9 percent showing in 1996, the Reform nominee is guaranteed $12.6 million in federal money, far more than Buchanan has been able to raise this year.) But what does the Reform party get? A candidate who, undeniably, has a shot at mobilizing not only far-right Republicans with his social conservatism but also labor-union Democrats with his insistent immigrant-bashing and mind-boggling trade protectionism. Those within the Reform ranks who support a Buchanan candidacy tout Pat as the man to take the party to "the next level." But to Ventura, Buchanan is a "retread," and to Weicker, Pitchfork Pat's "next level" is the end of the line. "Look at their track record," Weicker told CNN on Monday, referring to the far-right Buchanan ilk. "They took over the Republican party and made a shambles of it."
The Time Is Ripe
A word on third-party politics: It's possible. Voter turnout in the U.S. has sunk below 50 percent. Distaste for the current state of Washington politics is tangible; a generation of young voters is convinced — perhaps rightly — that they needn't worry about elections until they're rich enough to buy a politician of their own. Campaign-finance reform is being championed by both John McCain and Bill Bradley, and is actually starting to catch on as an issue, yet each finds the movement opposed to varying degrees by their major-party compatriots. The party in power never wants reform, and the party in the minority only pushes for it because they know it will never pass.
And the Issue Is Clear
Campaign finance reform is the best argument for a American third party in years, maybe ever, and it gets to the heart of what the Reform party needs to be to find the voters and constituencies that are sick of the system: issue-driven and intellectually inviting. The debate over reform has advanced beyond Ross Perot's jug-eared, wild-eyed peek under the hood; it has also advanced beyond — or, rather, never really included — Buchanan's willful, calculated ignorance of the rules of economic and political success in the modern world. We are up to specifics, up to intra-system mavericks like Bradley and McCain pressing real plans for campaign finance reform, and beyond pitch-perfect radicals like Pat Buchanan, who play to the angriest elements of our electorate because they reliably come out and vote. The key to a successful third party is igniting the interest of those who think but do not vote, not pandering to those who vote without thinking.
TIME Daily poll: The Reform Party's Candidate