J'Accuse! Is Pat Stealing the Reform Party Nod?

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The infighting in the Reform party gets weirder and weirder.

Earlier this year, Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura threw up his hands and quit Ross Perot's third party, accusing the Texas billionaire of conspiring to squash pro-Ventura forces And that's nothing new: Because of internecine squabbles, the party is already on its third chairman this year. Now the latest round of fighting is over allegations of voter fraud. And the alleged culprit is none other than Pat Buchanan.

The onetime Republican presidential hopeful is the leading candidate to capture the Reform party's presidential nod — and its coveted $12.5 million in federal matching funds. But Buchanan faces a serious challenge from John Hagelin, a physicist and advocate of transcendental meditation, who today urged an intraparty investigation into Buchanan's campaign and suggested that the former Nixon speechwriter may have violated the party's rules and should be disqualified from the race. "I will not let this process be stolen by massive voter fraud," Hagelin told a Washington, D.C., press conference today.

At the center of the dispute are the party's byzantine rules for choosing a nominee. Among the ways that persons can vote in the Reform party's presidential primary is by simply requesting a ballot from either the party itself or one of the campaigns. At the moment, requests for ballots submitted to the Buchanan campaign are dwarfing those submitted to Hagelin's campaign. Why the discrepancy? Hagelin accuses Buchanan of simply using mailing lists from his three GOP presidential runs to request some 250,000 ballots. Hagelin argues that such bundling amounts to voter fraud because the persons never actually requested the ballots themselves.

The plot got more interesting as longtime Perot lieutenant Russell Verney, the party's former chair, joined Hagelin at the press conference via telephone to echo the charges. Verney told the assembled reporters that he had voted for Hagelin. After initially welcoming Buchanan into the Reform party, many Perot allies have turned on Buchanan — accusing him of taking over state parties and using subterfuge to push the party to the right. Some Perot loyalists have embraced Hagelin as someone who can save their party.

The Buchanan campaign called the charges "false and outrageous." Still, Hagelin's forces vow to fight Buchanan's bid and insist that if he is found guilty of fraud he should be thrown off the presidential ballot — giving Hagelin the party's nod. The party's elections committee will offer the first judgment on the matter, but it's unlikely to be resolved before the party gathers in Long Beach, Calif., next month for its convention.

All of this intrigue might seem laughable, except it could have an effect on what promises to be a close presidential election. Even a showing of 2 or 3 percent by the Reform party could alter the presidential election in pivotal swing states. If Buchanan, a die-hard conservative, is the nominee, that's more likely to hurt Bush. Conversely, if the more liberal Hagelin, a professor at Mahareshi University in Iowa who is pro-choice and an opponent of genetically modified foods, were to grab the party nod, it might siphon a few votes from Gore — something he doesn't need at a time when he already faces an insurgency from Green party nominee Ralph Nader.

It's possible that the convention could even overturn the party's primary results. If two thirds of the delegates agree on a nominee, they could choose anyone — even someone not running this year. Someone like Ross Perot.