Reform Party's convention is scripted pep rally for financier Perot

August 14, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- At the outset of former Gov. Dick Lamm's speech before the new Reform Party convention here, he thanked party founder Ross Perot for making the day possible, observing that "I wouldn't be here without Ross Perot."

That certainly was true. The convention that marked the first of two steps in putting a third presidential candidate into the 1996 presidential election was Mr. Perot's baby, conceived and implemented in his head and with his money. Dick Lamm merely picked up on Mr. Perot's invitation to run amid the Texas billionaire's continued statements that he didn't want to run himself.

But the moment Governor Lamm announced his decision to seek the Reform Party nomination, there was Ross Perot declaring that although his new movement was "not about me," he was going to run, too.

Since then, Mr. Lamm has found himself cast essentially as a sparring partner for Mr. Perot in a sham fight for Mr. Perot's party. Mr. Lamm gamely played his part in the convention here, giving an earnest speech about the failure of the two major parties and the need for honest and sweeping reform. His call for limits on immigration were particularly popular with the overwhelmingly white audience.

But he was basically a warm-up speaker for Ross Perot in a "convention" that was little more than a pep rally, with the Texan offering his standard homespun lecture on economics. Former Rep. Ed Zschau of California, Mr. Lamm's chosen running mate, introduced him with a resume of Mr. Lamm's considerable government experience, including his two terms as governor of Colorado. Mr. Perot's supporters by contrast introduced him by reciting his many humanitarian acts -- and their smiling beneficiaries.

The estimated 1,500 "delegates" -- voters who signed petitions to get the Reform Party on the ballot in their states -- sat in the Long Beach Convention Center auditorium and were limited in their electioneering to cheering the speeches by Messrs. Lamm and Perot, who ranted as usual against Washington, Mexico and Japan.

They were also treated, finally, to Mr. Perot's flat, expected statement: "I want to be your president."

In the next week, the 1,450,000 Americans that organizer Russ Verney said have signed petitions will cast ballots marked either for Mr. Perot or Mr. Lamm.

Voters who have been given a voter identification number by the Perot-financed operation will be able to express their choice by mail, phone call or computer, via the Internet. The ballots will be tabulated by the Perot-selected and Perot-paid private accounting firm of Ernst and Young, which tabulated earlier ballots that qualified both men for the ballot.

The winner -- who barring a miracle will be Mr. Perot, who controlled the mailing list -- will be anointed in a second "convention" in Valley Forge, Pa.

The site apparently was chosen by Mr. Perot, who said earlier he was looking for "George Washington II" as his Reform Party's nominee. Don't be shocked if, instead, George II turns out to be Ross.

It can be fairly said that Mr. Lamm got suckered into offering himself as a stalking horse for Mr. Perot in a process cooked up by the party founder to lend his second candidacy a credibility that his first self-starting effort four years ago lacked.

Mr. Perot even asked the Federal Election Commission whether about $30 million in federal subsidies for which he qualified by winning 19 percent of the vote in 1992 could go to somebody else if he himself were not the nominee again. It seems a moot question now.

But never mind Mr. Lamm's ability to finance a general election campaign. He couldn't raise enough money to present even a poor version at the Long Beach convention of the costly, color-chart extravaganza billionaire Perot put on here, laced as ever with his amusing homilies.

So Dick Lamm's return to elective politics appears to have only a few more days to go, his brief campaign for the Reform Party presidential nomination having served as window-dressing to Ross Perot's thinly veiled attempt to pretend that his financing of the new party was not aimed at his own candidacy.

Like Steve Forbes in the Republican primaries earlier this year, Ross Perot once again is buying his way into the presidential campaign.

This time he has the comfort of knowing he has an organized party behind him. He knows it because he paid for it himself.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 8/14/96

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