Lamm beats Perot to join the race for President

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Ross Perot's fledgling Reform Party yesterday acquired a first declared contender for its 1996 presidential nomination, in the person of Richard Lamm, former Governor of Colorado and outspoken proponent of a balanced budget, electoral reform and strict curbs on immigration.

Announcing his candidacy at Denver University, Mr Lamm said that America needed a "crusade of renewal" which would engage the "main-stream middle, addressing long-term realities rather than short-term sideshows", aimed at eliminating the country's trade and budget deficits and overhauling its "dysfunctional" political system.

Sounding uncannily like Paul Tsongas, the austere former Massachusetts senator who challenged for the Democratic nomination in 1992, the 60-year- old Mr Lamm - a one-time Democrat - declared that 1996 was a "watershed election" whose issue was "not what America wants, but what it can afford". Neither Republicans nor Democrats wanted to deal with the most pressing issues, such as cuts in the healthcare and social-security programmes, for fear of offending voters.

The main practical effect of Mr Lamm's decision will be to force Mr Perot to make up his mind about a second White House bid. The quirky Texan billionaire has thus far confined himself to asserting that he wants the strongest possible candidate.

Most commentators believe that ultimately Ross Perot will conclude that person is himself. Perot spokesmen yesterday politely welcomed Mr Lamm's move, but stopped short of endorsing his candidacy. A crucial factor is money. Mr Perot, who is believed to have already spent $100m on the new party, could finance a campaign out of his own pocket. Not so Mr Lamm, who has thus far raised a puny $6,000. His hopes of a decent war chest hinge on the Reform Party being allowed to inherit the $32m of federal money to which Mr Perot would be personally entitled, on the basis of his 19 per cent of the vote in 1992.

Whether or not Mr Lamm is just a stalking horse for Mr Perot will become clear within the next month, when the Reform Party embarks on a two-stage nominating convention - first in California, then in August when the winner will be announced in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Voting will take place among 1.3 million registered Reform supporters. Already it is on the ballot in 17 states, and expects to be in the frame in all 50 when the autumn campaign begins on Labor Day, 2 September.

But its prospects thereafter are cloudy. Mr Lamm has minimal name recognition but a strong message which could appeal to voters dismayed by a straight choice between President Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.

Mr Perot, by contrast, is universally known - but far less popular than four years ago when he ran as an independent. In a three-way contest, he scores no higher than 10 or 12 per cent.