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Donald Trump, the outspoken, flamboyant New York developer, has decided not to seek the Reform Party presidential nomination, leaving arch-conservative Patrick Buchanan as the major contender to represent the fractious third party.

Mr. Trump, who had talked about using $100-million (U.S.) of his estimated $5-billion fortune to finance his presidential campaign, announced his decision in a television interview yesterday, followed by a written statement. He called Reform "a total mess," incapable of mounting an effective campaign for the White House this year.

"I have consistently stated that I would spend my time, energy and money on a campaign, not just to get a large number of votes, but to win," he said in the statement. "There would be no other purpose, other than winning, for me to run. I have therefore decided not to seek the presidential nomination of the Reform Party."

Mr. Trump becomes the latest celebrity to decide against running for president after highly publicized flirtations. They include actors Cybill Shepherd, Warren Beatty and Arnold Schwarzenegger, all of whom generated media attention and fostered a debate on whether politics has become a form of entertainment in the United States.

Mr. Trump isn't an actor, but he is a showman, known commonly as "the Donald." As he mused about running for president, he boasted about his success in real estate, in which he is known for his casinos, hotels and office towers, and in romance, in which he is known for his affairs with beautiful models and socialites, as well as a messy divorce from his wife, Ivana.

Mr. Trump never formally declared his candidacy, though he made exploratory campaign trips, gave speeches and interviews, and issued policies on health care and debt reduction. His politics were thought to be a mix of left and right, and although his popularity was in single digits, analysts suggested he might have drawn votes from both Republicans and Democrats in a general election.

Mr. Trump said yesterday that he could win the nomination, but that it would be an empty title if the party remained torn by defections and dissent.

"To win the presidency as a third-party candidate, all forces within that party would have to strongly pull together and be totally united," he said. "Sadly, this has not happened."

Last Friday, Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, the party's highest-ranking elected official, quit the party he called "dysfunctional." On the weekend, a meeting of the party's national committee in Nashville erupted in chaos when members loyal to former presidential candidate Ross Perot unseated the chairman, Jack Gargan of Florida, Mr. Ventura's ally, who was elected last year.

Board members were angry that Mr. Gargan had overturned a decision to hold the national convention in California and move it to St. Paul, Minn., and ousted him by a vote of 109 to 31.

Mr. Trump's withdrawal wasn't lamented by Pat Choate, the party's vice-presidential nominee in 1996 and its new interim chairman. He called Mr. Trump a publicity-seeker and a self-promoter, who was more interested in selling his new book than running for the party.

"Donald Trump . . . promoted himself at our expense, and I think he understands fully that we've ended the possibilities for such abuse of our party," he said yesterday. "We're taking our party back to our very principles, and exploiters such as Donald Trump will not be able to exploit us again. . . ."

Mr. Trump's withdrawal leaves only Mr. Buchanan as a major candidate seeking the Reform nomination. If he wins it, he will gain access to $12.6-million in federal funds. Mr. Buchanan has twice tried for the Republican Party's presidential nomination, but quit that party last year.

Trump dislikes Mr. Buchanan, who he says has made overtures to David Duke, the former Klansman in Louisiana, and to Lenora Fulani, a Marxist who has twice run for president.

Reform Party is a total mess," Mr. Trump said. "You've got Buchanan, a right-winger, and Fulani, a communist, and they've merged, and I don't know what you have."

Mr. Buchanan's nomination, however, isn't a sure thing. Mr. Perot, who led the party in the last two elections, hasn't declared his intentions and may run a third time. In the 1992 presidential election, Mr. Perot won 19 per cent of the vote; in 1996, he won 8 per cent.