Reform Party Wrestles With an Identity Crisis

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Jesse Ventura, the new great hope of the Reform party, was caught in bad weather and couldn’t make it to his party’s convention in Dearborn, Mich., this weekend, but the pull-no-punches Minnesota governor was evidently there in spirit. "I don't want the damned job, but I've got too much at stake," said Jack Gargan, a retired financial consultant from Florida, upon his election as chairman of the angry-but-confused Reform party on Sunday. "I have so much at stake I'm not about to let this ship go down." Distancing itself from chart-obsessed founder Ross Perot is clearly the party’s first task, and Gargan, who ran for chairman on a promise not to support another Perot presidential run, immediately vowed to move the party's headquarters from Perot's Dallas offices to Florida. But in a party built on dissatisfaction — and in need of some institutional excitement (only 311 of the 585 delegates showed up this year) — how does the Reform party decide just what it wants to reform?

"We have everyone, from people who think Jesse Jackson is too conservative to people who think Pat Buchanan is too liberal," said Tom McLaughlin, the third candidate on the chairmanship ballot, told the Associated Press. Ventura, personal charisma aside, succeeded with a neo-libertarian mix of unblinking fiscal conservatism and social-issue laissez-faire, but at the grass roots the party is split into as many as 10 factions and has to contend with vehement pro-lifers and Perot’s own calls for the party to emphasize a "moral foundation." And still in its infancy as a national force, it can’t afford to turn anyone away. Not to mention that the 2000 race already has two anti-candidates –- Republican John McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley –- who have staked out whatever reformist sentiment America is willing to throw a vote away on. Whoever the party’s 2000 candidate is — Ventura has the love of the faithful but has shied away from a run into oblivion so soon into his Minnesota term –- will have to do plenty of compromising to get this contentious, variegated lot under the same tent. Maybe they can learn something from the GOP.