Take My Party, Please


    Maybe the meeting at the Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino is not destined to be remembered along with Yalta and Potsdam as one of history's great summits. But back in 1988, at the World Wrestling Federation's Wrestlemania IV in Atlantic City, Donald Trump met Jesse ("the Body") Ventura. The real estate parvenu was impressed by the wrestler's sense of showmanship. The two remained casual acquaintances over the years--they became pen pals and talked about golf. Eleven years later, they find themselves soulmates: each would deny Patrick J. Buchanan the Reform Party's presidential nomination. Trump is eyeing the race and has ordered up an analysis of the Reform Party's ballot-access rules.

    Trump is not the only big name hovering at the party's edge. Buchanan, former Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker, Ross Perot and Warren Beatty--each, along with Trump, has considered (casually, at least) a run. And why not? With more than $12 million in federal matching funds and, perhaps, a chance to be in the presidential debates, the party's nomination is the stage for an angry voice. There's no ideological price of admission. The party, founded by Perot, welcomes earnest centrists eager for entitlement reform as well as anti-new world order conspiracists. So each potential candidate, from the hard left to hard right, can justifiably see it as terra firma.

    If Trump wants it, then it's good news for George W. Bush. For months Bush has been worried about Buchanan's entering the race as a spoiler who would pull conservative votes from George W. the same way Perot stymied his dad. Indeed, a prominent G.O.P. source tells TIME that a Bush envoy visited Minneapolis recently and spoke to Ventura allies about the Reform Party nomination. The envoy didn't explicitly push a Trump candidacy or a Ventura run--something the Minnesota Governor has officially ruled out. But the envoy did ask if Ventura would fight a Buchanan bid. The answer came back: he would welcome others in the race. (The Bush camp denies even sending an envoy.) Buchanan, of course, bristles at the idea of a Ventura-Trump-Bush alliance. He told TIME last week, "When people talk about the insiders fixing the game, that's exactly what this says."

    The Bushies like a Trump candidacy because they think it would pull votes from the Democrats. They may be right. Trump's database of his 6.5 million customers reads like a Democratic mailing list. "They are black, Hispanic, Catholic, white working-class and mostly male," said a Trump adviser. "They stay at our hotels. They play at our tables. They like his plane. They like his boat. They like his house. They like his girlfriends. They all love Trump." The source added, "The Reform Party becomes Gore's worst nightmare, instead of Bush's."

    Trump's lobbyist in Washington, Roger Stone, is helping his client consider a race. Stone, known in G.O.P. circles for his dapper dress and libertarian leanings, began urging the Donald to run last spring. Trump wasn't interested. The developer had dabbled in politics at least once before. He spoke in New Hampshire in late 1987 but soon lost interest. Three weeks ago, Trump called Ventura, and the two talked politics. Ventura urged Trump to consider a run, pleading for a nonpolitician to carry the Reform Party flag. They discussed taxes, regulation and campaign-finance reform. Last week Ventura called Trump but did not commit to supporting him. After that call Trump asked Stone to assess how the New Yorker might fare under the ballot rules. "He is going to look at [the race] seriously," Stone told TIME.

    What Trump will find is that the rules are complex. "This thing is like a giant calculus problem," Buchanan says. To become the Reform nominee, a candidate must essentially pass a two-part test. First, try to get on the ballot in some 30 states where the Reform Party is not slated already. If a candidate can get on enough ballots, then he's eligible for a national primary--an open-door affair in which any eligible voter who requests a Reform ballot can participate. On paper, at least, the rules are fair. But there's still room for mischief. Republicans or Democrats can sabotage the Reform Party's primary, flooding it with ballots in an effort to nominate someone who would most hurt their opponent.

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