LENORA FULANI has never been ashamed of being called a radical. As a leader of the hard-left (and now defunct) New Alliance party, Fulani ran for president twice on a platform so extreme she was dismissed by the Nation as a fringe case. Long a slogan-shouting fixture at leftist demonstrations in New York, Fulani has over the years formed political alliances with Al Sharpton, Leonard Jeffries, and Louis Farrakhan. She knows Tawana Brawley personally. She spent years in analysis with a lesbian Gestalt therapist. She is, in short, not the sort of person you'd expect to see having lunch with Pat Buchanan.

Yet there she was last Monday dining and talking politics with Buchanan in the restaurant of the Essex House Hotel in Manhattan. By the end of the meal, Fulani had made it clear she would support Buchanan's run for president on the Reform party ticket.

The most unlikely political coupling since Elvis met Nixon? Undoubtedly, especially since Buchanan and Fulani still share very few of the same beliefs. "There was a fair amount of levity and self-conscious humor about how we were all at the table together," says Jacqueline Salit, a longtime New Alliance party activist who was also at the lunch. As his wife Shelley and sister Bay looked on, Salit says, Buchanan chatted with Fulani about the presidential race, the Reform party's latest convention, the difficulties of mounting a third-party campaign -- virtually everything, in other words, except the innumerable subjects on which they violently disagree.

Which makes sense, says Salit, who like Fulani and New Alliance guru Fred Newman joined the Reform party in 1996. "This party is about being a non-ideological force for political change." Non-ideological? Isn't Buchanan the original caricature of a foam-specked ideologue? Exactly, says Salit. "That's one of the things Pat brings to the table, that he is so ideological. It's a way to make a point about the non-ideological nature of the party."

There's a certain Zen quality to Salit's logic, but it doesn't seem to have deterred Buchanan, who every day comes closer to leaving the Republican party. Will Buchanan take the Reform plunge? Almost certainly. For one thing, it's clear that Buchanan has decided he wants the Reform nomination -- wants it badly enough to seek the blessing of Lenora Fulani (which, non-ideological political change notwithstanding, must have required steely self-discipline and an enormous amount of pride swallowing). For another, there may be no one in the Reform party who can stop him.

Until recently there has been quite a bit of confusion over what it takes to win the Reform party nomination -- which is not surprising for a movement formed in the wake of a single appearance on Larry King Live. Many of the party's guiding documents are grammatically suspect and, in general, difficult to understand. Decipher the dangling modifiers and it turns out that anyone who wants the party's nomination in 2000 will have to get his name on the ballot in more than 20 states (states in which the Reform party does not have a permanent line), and then win the majority of votes in an election open to anyone who requests a Reform party ballot.

In theory, the nomination is a wide-open contest. In practice, Buchanan is one of the few people who could win. It might cost a neophyte $ 25 million to qualify in the necessary states. Buchanan, with his extensive mailing lists and nationwide organization, could probably do it for $ 2 million. Moreover, many of Buchanan's current supporters are Buchananites rather than Republicans, and therefore likely to stay with him regardless of his party affiliation.

After winning the nomination, Buchanan would be eligible for the nearly $ 13 million in federal matching funds the Reform party will receive this year. (Bay Buchanan was on the phone with FEC lawyers last week making certain that her brother, as a refugee from the GOP, would not be barred from receiving the money.) With federal dollars and a decent fund-raising effort -- including the soft money a few wealthy Buchanan backers could pour into the Reform party -- Buchanan might do fairly well in the general election. A 20 percent showing (and it's not impossible) would make the Reform party eligible for tens of millions in federal money for the 2004 election. At which point, Buchanan could run again, better-funded than ever. It could go on forever.

Which is exactly what worries Jesse Ventura, governor of Minnesota and the highest (virtually the only) elected member of the Reform party. Ventura plans to run for president in 2004 himself. He is reportedly infuriated by the idea of competition from an interloper like Buchanan. "Jesse wants a place-sitter," says Pat Choate, who in 1996 ran for vice president on the Perot ticket. "He wants someone to hold the seat. But he doesn't trust Pat not to run again."

Even more irritating to Ventura, Buchanan appears to have the tacit support of Ross Perot. Ventura asked Perot for financial support during his 1998 gubernatorial race, was denied, and has loathed the tiny Texan ever since. "Jesse's attitude is, 'If Perot is for it, I'm against it,'" says a Reform party political operative.

So far, Ventura hasn't been able to tweak the party rules in such a way as to keep Buchanan from getting the nomination. Instead, he has tried to find an alternative candidate. An early, secret overture to Warren Beatty backfired when one of Ventura's consultants blabbed about the meeting on television. Offended, Beatty hasn't communicated with Ventura since. In the past few weeks, rumors about whom Ventura will anoint -- Ralph Nader perhaps, or former Natural Law candidate John Hagelin -- have circulated throughout the party. (Reform party people spend a lot of time circulating rumors.) His almost-certain choice is Donald Trump.

Ventura and Trump first met some years ago, when Ventura, in his previous incarnation, performed at WrestleMania IV at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. Shortly before Labor Day this year, Ventura called Trump and suggested that he run for the Reform party nomination. It's not as implausible as it sounds. Trump has recovered from his early-90s financial crisis and is now reputed to be worth about $ 5 billion. Thanks to his casino and apartment complex businesses, he has a customer database of more than six million names, each of them a potential political supporter. And of course he is Donald Trump. Which means that he might be arrogant enough to run for president with no prior political experience.

Finally, there is the Bush factor. There is little doubt that a Buchanan candidacy would harm George W. Bush in the general election. Trump, on the other hand, may draw from an entirely different constituency. According to a political consultant who has studied the matter, Trump supporters would be disproportionately Democratic -- black and Hispanic voters, and working-class white Catholics earning less than $ 25,000 a year. To this demographic, the consultant says, Trump is a hero. "The cars, the airplanes, the beautiful women. It's a lifestyle thing. They respect him." If this is true -- and Trump, for one, is said to believe it is -- then there is no reason the Bush campaign wouldn't do all it could to promote a Trump candidacy.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Washington are still trying to figure out what to make of the latest Buchanan candidacy. On Friday morning last week, Bob Adams, Buchanan's communications director, resigned from the campaign. Adams is a gentleman and, in his carefully worded statement, he refrained from saying anything unpleasant about his former boss. His contempt and bewilderment came through anyway. "I plan to do whatever it takes to support the Republican candidate for president," Adams said, emphasizing the word "Republican." Even if that candidate decides to have lunch with Lenora Fulani? Adams almost answered, then stopped himself. "I'll have to reserve comment on that," he said.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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