WASHINGTON - Pat Buchanan's expected bolt from the Republican Party on Monday may have implications for front-runner George W. Bush in Nevada.
A Las Vegas Review-Journal and KTNV-TV Channel 13 poll released earlier this month indicated that Bush's lead over Vice President Al Gore in the state would be halved by a Buchanan run on the Reform Party ticket.
That poll showed Bush leads Gore by 12 percent without Buchanan and by 6 percent with him.
Nationally, if Gore were to face Bush in the general election next year, Bush would defeat Gore by a 49-40 margin, latest Newsweek poll.
Buchanan does not expect to leave the Republican Party empty-handed.
After quietly plotting strategy for weeks, the three-time presidential candidate plans to abandon his political roots for the Reform Party on Monday and take his fragile political coalition with him. It never quite fit the GOP, anyway.
He hopes to rally:
-Social conservatives by denouncing abortion and defending American sovereignty.
-Labor Democrats by attacking free-trade deals and defending workers squeezed by new economic pressures.
-Populists and acolytes of Reform Party founder Ross Perot by showing a newfound zeal for campaign finance reform.
''Pat is going to find an entirely different audience, where in the past he was left to deal with just Republican primary voters,'' said former Reform Party vice presidential candidate Pat Choate. ''He can reach for the Democrats, the independents and, of course, the conservative Republicans.''
''He can go for the whole wad,'' Choate said.
Though he has not formally left the GOP, Buchanan already has inserted supporters in several state Reform Party operations. Plans are in place to gain ballot access state-to-state, an expensive procedure that will test his ability to raise money and maintain the loyalty of a volunteer network of longtime Republicans.
Buchanan, whose GOP presidential campaign never got off the ground, is seeking the nomination of a fractious party with a core of several hundred activists and a few political novelties: Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, tycoon Donald Trump and Perot himself are considered potential candidates - not to mention the handful of Hollywood types rumored to be mulling bids.
Perot founded the party, but Ventura reshaped it with an upset victory in 1998. Ventura thinks Buchanan's social views are too conservative, so he is urging Trump to run. Many Perot allies do not like Ventura and are backing Buchanan.
Buchanan is no stranger to a political fight.
He won the 1996 New Hampshire primary and put a scare into President Bush in the 1992 contest. Both times, his campaign fizzled after New Hampshire due to a lack of money and little room to grow beyond his social conservative base.
Republicans fear a third-party Buchanan bid would siphon right-wing voters from the eventual nominee, tipping the scales in favor of the Democratic presidential candidate.
Some polls substantiate the fears, though others suggest Buchanan would draw equally from both parties. In either case, only one in 10 voters expressed support for Buchanan's candidacy.
Yet Buchanan's political history gives him reason to believe he can expand beyond his GOP base. In open primaries - those that did not limit the voting to Republicans - Buchanan padded his totals with Democratic votes.
Exit polls from 1996 showed that hard-hat Democrats helped Buchanan draw 40 percent of the vote against eventual nominee Bob Dole in Michigan, and more than 30 percent in Wisconsin.
Buchanan returns to Michigan on Tuesday, after announcing his decision in Washington and holding a rally in New Hampshire.
''Buchanan will pull, if he wins the nomination, from the blue-collar Democrats as much as from Republicans, '' said Patricia Benjamin, vice chairman of the Reform Party.
Buchanan earned 31 percent of the vote to Dole's 34 percent in Macomb County, Mich., where he was returning for the announcement tour. Longtime Democrats in the blue-collar suburbs north of Detroit swung to President Reagan in the 1980s and back to Democrats in 1992 and 1996.
The county's Reagan Democrats welcomed Buchanan's skeptical take on trade and his tirades about the gap between high- and low-wage earners. A similar message from Perot did equally well: He earned nearly 20 percent of the county's general election vote in 1992.
The rest of Buchanan's announcement trip is equally revealing.
He travels Wednesday to textile country in South Carolina, where Democrats and Republicans alike blame free-trade agreements for shuttered plants.
On Thursday, he plans to go to the heart of the Reform Party with a visit to Minnesota. He wants to show that he is not intimated by Ventura.
He will be in North Dakota on Friday and Saturday to attend a Christian Coalition meeting, wrapping up the tour with a return to his roots.
Abortion, trade, jobs, wages and the dangers of getting involved abroad are expected to be a staple of Buchanan's speeches, associates say. He may trim and expand to soothe his audience: less talk of abortion in Michigan than in North Dakota, for example.
He already is modifying his message for the party switch. Rarely one to discuss campaign finance reform, Buchanan suddenly has a section of his Internet site devoted to it.
Diane McKelvey, a Reform Party leader from Michigan, said she and several other party members met recently with Buchanan to test his support for the issue - a major plank in the party platform.
''He looked at our platform and said, 'There's nothing here I disagree with,''' she said. ''He said he has not pushed it before because he was focused on other issues.''