LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Texas billionaire Ross Perot and former Colorado Governor Richard D. Lamm, both warning of impending economic doom for the nation, vied for the nomination of the fledgling Reform Party last night at a gathering dominated by zealous Perot supporters.
"I want to be your president," Perot declared to deafening applause and cheers at the first round of the party's two-part nominating convention. "If you choose me as your candidate, I will dedicate myself as a servant of the American people to solving these problems. I don't belong to anybody but you."
Both Perot and Lamm sounded similar themes of fiscal responsibility -- balancing the budget and reining in federal entitlement programs. Perot, aided by his trademark charts and interrupted repeatedly by chants of "We Want Ross," said the budget deficit "takes off like a rocket shot in the 21st century."
Lamm, solemn and low-key compared to the folksy, zesty Perot, warned that the two major political parties were "recklessly, recklessly driving this country into bankruptcy."
The former governor, who joined the race six weeks ago, had his own contingent of enthusiastic supporters among the 2,600 people who filled an auditorium in the Long Beach Convention Center and an overflow room.
But he was the clear underdog, viewed by many Perot supporters, in fact, as an interloper at a Perot party.
A Democrat until recently, Lamm opened his speech by saluting Perot for starting the Reform Party, but he said he knew in his heart that "the torch must pass."
He said he and his running mate, former California congressman Ed Zschau, bring the type of experience and leadership to the Reform movement "which is needed if our party is to grow, mature and become a significant influence in American politics."
Known as "Governor Gloom" in Colorado for his agenda of sacrifice and tough choices, Lamm said he would build a party around campaign and government reform, "fiscal sanity" and, most popular with the audience, immigration reform.
Perot returned to the themes he has been sounding since his 1992 presidential run, including a lengthy attack on the "stupid, one-sided trade deals costing our country millions of jobs."
He said, if elected president, he would form task forces to deal with the nation's problems.
The convention was a sort of stiff, scripted three-hour infomercial. From a no-frills stage, there were tearful, sentimental testimonials from Perot supporters who described how Perot's string-pulling efforts with doctors saved the lives of loved ones.
Joan Vinson, the Maryland Reform Party director, spoke of Perot's efforts in the late 1960s on behalf of those, like her former husband, who were missing in action in Vietnam.
Immediately after yesterday's program, televised on CNN and C-SPAN, the Reform Party's 1.1 million members were allowed to begin their voting -- by phone, computer e-mail, or mail -- that is to continue through the week.
The results are to be announced at the second part of the party's convention in Valley Forge, Pa., on Sunday.
It has been expected that Perot will easily walk away with the nomination since the party he founded, and continues to fund and run, is largely made up of those who have been loyal to Perot since his quixotic 1992 bid for the presidency. Already, Perot has spent at least $6.2 million on his Reform Party efforts this year.
In an initial vote earlier this summer to determine the party's nominees, Perot won more than two-thirds of the vote, Lamm only 28 percent.
Yesterday's gathering seemed to reflect that mix.
Those in the audience, many of them covered with Perot buttons, carrying "Ross the Boss" signs and wearing Perot T-shirts, seemed to have their minds made up.
"I'm trying to be fair," said Pat Muth, the paid staff director for the Reform Party in Florida who has worked for Perot since 1992. Asked who she was supporting, she said, "You can guess."
Lamm's supporters were equally sold on the former governor. "If this Reform Party is going to live on, we've got to take the leadership away from Perot," said Ralph Abruscato, 51, an insurance salesman from Simi Valley. "We need to talk about real issues rather than the homilies Perot is always talking about. Perot has demonstrated he's more showman than deep-thinker."
In fact, polls have shown that Perot's popularity has dipped substantially since 1992, when, running as an independent, he won 19 percent of the vote after spending $60 million of his own money.
Russell Verney, the Reform Party's national coordinator, said yesterday that even if the party's nominee does not win in the general election, a minimum of a 5 percent showing would guarantee federal election funds for a Reform Party nominee running in the year 2000.