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Published: Sunday, 8/20/2000

Pitchfork Pat's crusade is ending as farce

"Thank God and Greyhound he's gone!" Sen. John McCain exclaimed last November when Pat Buchanan left the Republican Party for the Reform Party. Few other GOP notables publicly expressed similar sentiments then. But it's clear now the greatest service Mr. Buchanan has performed for the Republican Party was leaving it.

His departure was the proximate cause of the long faces of the network anchormen at the Republican convention in Philadelphia. They love to report dissension within Republican ranks, and examples of "mean-spiritedness" among the GOP rank and file. Pitchfork Pat was a rich source for both.

Mr. Buchanan was nowhere to be found, so Dan and Peter and Tom and Bernie were reduced to warning us, over and over again, not to believe our lying eyes: Republicans aren't really this happy and tolerant and nice.

Pitchfork Pat brought his trademark dissension to the Reform Party, which had been a thorn in the GOP's side in the last two presidential elections.

The Reform Party convention in Long Beach was beyond satire. You had Mr. Buchanan, the Cotton Mather of the religious right, squaring off against John Hagelin, professor of physics at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield Ia., who believes the world's problems can be solved by transcendental meditation.

When it was plain Mr. Buchanan had enough delegates to work his will, the Hagelin/Perot faction staged a noisy walkout to a site down the block to hold a nominating convention of their own, and filed suit with the Federal Election Commission to prevent Mr. Buchanan from receiving the $12.6 million in federal funds to which the party is entitled as a result of Ross Perot's showing in 1996.

The case of the Perotistas was weakened by the results of the Reform Party's mail-in primary, which both factions took steps to invalidate before they were made known. Ballots were mailed to some 887,000 alleged Reform Party members nationwide. Of these, 78,068 were returned. Mr. Buchanan won 49,529, or 62 per cent.

The poor rate of return of mail ballots, and the small number of total votes cast indicate that if Mr. Buchanan did make a hostile takeover of the Reform Party, he took over a corpse that has not yet been buried. A corpse with two heads.

Mr. Buchanan named his running mate, Ezola Foster, a black woman who used to be a typing teacher in Los Angeles public schools, at an outdoor press conference with the Queen Mary as a backdrop. It may as well have been the Titanic. Mr. Buchanan hoped to confound critics with the choice, but was embarrassed to learn that Ms. Foster had been a member of the John Birch Society, the wacko group that called Dwight Eisenhower a communist.

"This whole mess has pretty much guaranteed he's not going to do much this time," sighed Mark Zatezalo, 48, a Buchanan supporter from Weirton, W. Va.

Mr. Zatezalo's pessimism was borne out by polls that showed Mr. Buchanan's post-convention "bounce" was more of a thud. Support for his candidacy has fallen from 2 per cent to 1 per cent.

The most significant change in the political landscape in this election from the preceding two is the change in minor party situation. Mr. Perot won nearly 20 per cent of the vote in 1992 and more than 8 per cent in 1996 - most of it at the expense of Republicans. This year, the most significant minor party effort is from the left, from Ralph Nader and the Green Party. Mr. Nader has been around 5 per cent in most polls.

The real disparity is greater. Mr. Buchanan's meager support is spread fairly evenly throughout the country. He is irrelevant everywhere. Mr. Nader's is concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest, and New England, in states that the Democrats carried in the last two elections, but which they likely will lose if Mr. Nader gets more than 5 per cent of the vote.

Mr. Buchanan's crusade is ending as farce. But he still may have his place in history. If George W. Bush wins this election narrowly, he may owe his victory to Pitchfork Pat's demolition work.

Jack Kelly is a member of The Blade's national bureau.

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