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Now What?
By Martin Kaste
July 26, 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0 | Slide Show

The Reform party has just concluded its annual convention in suburban Detroit, where it elected a new party chairman. Jack Gargan promises to rebuild the party in the image of its new rising star, Governor Jesse Ventura.

Peggy Cleary of Indiana credits Ross Perot for her political awakening, late in life. It's a sentiment echoed by hundreds of others at the convention.

See a slideshowof other activities at the Reform Party convention. Photo: Martin Kaste
a deep reservoir of affection for Ross Perot in the party he founded, despite his disappointing showing as its presidential candidate in 1996. That affection was on display at the Reform Party's national convention, held this past weekend in a hotel in suburban Detroit.
Cleary: My name is Peggy Clearly, I'm from Lafayette, Indiana. Hoosier country and Purdue proud.
Cleary staked out the hotel's service entrance in hopes of catching the reclusive Perot and presenting him with a plaque.
Cleary: "In recognition and appreciation for all you have done to inspire and especially motivate us to take back our country." What he has done, is that for the first time in my life, I heard somebody say, "You can do it." Just because you're a grandmother, just because you're a working lady, why can't you do something for your country?
Cleary credits Perot for her political awakening, late in life. It's a sentiment echoed by hundreds of others at the convention.

But mixed with this affection for Perot is a growing feeling that the time has come for the party to outgrow its founder.

A sign of that feeling is the election of Jack Gargan as the new party chair. Gargan is a longtime third-party activist and champion of term limits, and was one of the earliest instigators of the draft-Perot movement in 1992. But seven years later, Gargan represents the post-Perot era.
Gargan: We're moving on, as I said in my speech, we're the little birdy out of the nest, and it's pretty dangerous territory out there, so it's up to us now to stay the course that Mr. Perot started.
Gargan and his chief sponsor, Governor Jesse Ventura, say Perot had his chance as the movement's presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996. Most in the party seem to agree. In an epic presidential straw poll at the convention, Perot led the list of possible presidential candidates - but with only 22.4 percent.

The Texas billionaire has not announced his intentions for 2000, but in a speech to the party faithful on Saturday night, he seemed to leave his options open.
Perot: The thing I want you to understand, that, as long as I'm helpful to the organization, I am certainly happy to help and participate in any constructive way.
He also rejected media reports of a power-struggle inside the party.
Perot: The last thing I want is all of these things that I see in the paper day in and day out, about cat fights and this that and the other, that have nothing to do with fact, but make great fiction.
The tension is real enough in the minds of some of Ventura's supporters. Phil Madsen of the Minnesota Reform Party says he's bewildered by Perot's failure to recognize the party's most successful politician.
Madsen: You know, there's a lot of people in the Minnesota delegation that were slighted - if not highly offended - by Perot's remarks, and it's unfortunate ignorance on Perot's part, it's just unfortunate. I mean, this party's got to ... If anything, it demonstrates the need more than ever that this thing has got to grow beyond Perot.
Still, the party has no clear alternative to Perot for the 2000 presidential race, especially since Ventura has said he will not run. So far, the list of declared Reform candidates is limited to obscure third-party activists whose fame is restricted to their hometowns and certain parts of the Internet.

Most delegates at the convention believe the party needs a candidate with at least some national name recognition, and many hope to draft a luminary from outside, such as former General Colin Powell, or real estate tycoon Donald Trump. and on the Sunday morning talk shows, Governor Ventura suggested drafting Republican Senator John McCain. But the party's new chairman, Gargan, is wary of bringing in an outsider, especially considering the federal matching funds the Reform Party can offer its candidate next year.
Gargan: We don't want these wolves in sheep's clothing, they'll be, they need not apply. They're the people who are out there who are former Democrats or Republicans who couldn't hack it with even their own party, and they think we're a bunch of suckers with $12.5 million dollars in our pocket who'll give them a free ticket to their election.
Gargan says he's confident a good candidate with solid anti-Republican and anti-Democrat credentials will surface with time, something the Reform Party has allowed itself plenty of. While George W. Bush and Al Gore are already being portrayed as their party's presumed nominees, the Reformers don't plan to choose their candidate until next summer.