WASHINGTON - The Reform Party's disputed $12.6 million in federal campaign money belongs to Pat Buchanan, the Federal Election Commission said Tuesday.
Buchanan, the former Republican who is counting on the money to revive his presidential campaign, is entitled to receive it as the party's nominee, the FEC said in a 5-1 preliminary ruling.
The commissioners are expected to give their final approval within days, authorizing the U.S. Treasury to give Buchanan a check. However, John Hagelin, who contends that he, not Buchanan, is the party's legitimate nominee, intends to appeal to federal court.
That could further delay Buchanan from getting the money, since Hagelin officials said they will seek a federal injunction. Spokesman Bob Roth said the appeal will be filed immediately after the FEC makes its final decision.
Buchanan expressed confidence he would overcome any legal challenge.
''We're going to get the people who nominated me as their candidate the campaign they deserve and the job I've been waiting to do all may life,'' he said on CNN.
The Reform Party is due the money because of the 1996 election showing of party founder Ross Perot, who won 8 percent of the national vote. But the commission went against the wishes of Perot, who submitted an affidavit favoring Hagelin.
Buchanan said he blamed Perot for all the obstacles in getting the campaign money: ''This was orchestrated since the convention basically to sabotage our campaign.''
''Mr. Buchanan is absolutely paranoid,'' Roth responded. ''This was a grass-roots effort by a broad base of the Reform Party ... led by John Hagelin entirely.''
The only negative vote Tuesday came from commissioner Karl Sandstrom, who expressed concern about the party's infighting. He said he preferred that a federal court resolve the fight.
Sandstrom also objected to the commission's speedy decision. He said, ''I am convinced that the law requires more of us than of officials at a track meet. ... The staking of a claim is simply not sufficient.''
However, commissioner Bradley Smith said, ''We do not police the internal matters of parties, and we need not go further.'' He added later, ''There is no doubt here that Buchanan is the party's nominee, and there is no reason to delay the certification.''
The commission unanimously agreed that Hagelin failed to meet the qualifications as required by federal law.
Perot filed an affidavit supporting Hagelin saying that ''the candidate of the Reform Party which is currently under the leadership of James Mangia is the only proper candidate to receive public funding based on the votes I received in the 1996 election.''
Mangia is the chairman of the Hagelin faction of the Reform Party.
The FEC was summoned to referee the battle over the money after both Buchanan and Hagelin claimed the Reform mantle last month at the party's national convention. The raucous gathering in Long Beach, Calif., concluded with the two factions selecting separate nominees.
Buchanan's sister and campaign chairwoman, Bay Buchanan, said before Tuesday's vote, ''It was a distraction not to be able to move ahead more rapidly right after the convention ... but we're in pretty good shape as long as the money comes in this week.''
Buchanan, whose campaign also was interrupted by a pair of gallbladder surgeries, is to return to the campaign trail Monday, beginning in South Carolina at Bob Jones University, she said.
Federal law requires a ''minor'' party candidate to prove he is on the general election ballot as the party's nominee in at least 10 states. FEC auditors said Hagelin was the nominee of the Natural Law Party, not the Reform Party, in six of the states he submitted. Hagelin attorneys argued that the Natural Law Party and the Reform Party were the same in those states. The auditors disagreed.
Hagelin has said he plans to campaign regardless of whether he gets federal funding, thanks to the help of his millionaire running mate, Nat Goldhaber, a high-tech entrepreneur. Hagelin said the federal money ''will not make or break my campaign.''
Buchanan joined the Reform Party last year. The three-time presidential candidate bolted from the Republican Party, where he had run for president in previous years. Some of his views, particularly against abortion and homosexuality, have caused rifts within the Reform Party, which tries to stay out of social issues.