VALLEY FORGE, Pa. -- Ross Perot launched his second bid for the presidency last night, dusting off his familiar charts, homespun homilies and searing attacks on the two major political parties for their failures to address the nation's economic problems.
"Can we count on the two political parties to solve these problems?" the Texas billionaire asked an audience of about 2,300 supporters who filled a hall here for the second part of the Reform Party's unorthodox two-part convention. "No! They are the problem, right?"
By the historic site where George Washington prepared his troops for battle through a brutal winter, Perot accepted his party's nomination and tried to rally his troops for what looks, at this point, like a nearly unwinnable battle.
"I will be your servant," Perot declared, gripping the podium, to wild cheers from the crowd. "I will only belong to you the people. I am absolutely committed, irrevocably committed to passing on a better world to our children and grandchildren."
Perot seemed to pick up where he left off in 1992, chiding the political parties for their dependence on special-interest money, for what he called "stupid" trade agreements and for failing to control the debt and deficit. And he made several jabs at President Clinton.
"Do you get this kind of blunt, straight talk from the other political parties?" he asked. "Would you rather hear this kind of talk from me, or do you want me to get tears in my eyes and say, 'I feel your pain?' "
Perot, who already has spent $6.2 million on the Reform Party effort, won his party's nomination Saturday night by almost a 2-to-1 margin over his competitor, former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm. The vote was announced after a week of mail, phone and computer voting in which an extraordinarily tiny fraction of the party cast ballots.
Lamm, who received 35 percent of the vote to Perot's 65 percent, told the gathering he had no regrets about his brief involvement with the Reform Party. He called on the party to add the issue of immigration to its agenda. "There is no essential difference in my mind between exporting a job and importing a new worker," he said.
Earlier in the day, the former Democratic governor said he was not sure that he would support Perot in November, although he intended to continue to work for the reform movement. Lamm said he still has questions about whether the balloting was fair.
The small turnout -- a little more than 4 percent of the Reform Party's 1.1 million members cast ballots that were sent to them -- would suggest that Perot's support has become exceptionally thin.
In light of that showing, as well as a new Newsweek poll that shows support for a Reform Party candidate at a low of 3 percent in a three-way race with President Clinton and Republican nominee Bob Dole, Perot faces an uphill battle in trying to be any sort of force in this year's presidential race. He is unlikely to get anywhere near the support he received in 1992 when he won 19 percent of the vote after spending more than $60 million of his own money.
Perot is expected to repeat his campaign mode of four years ago -- filling the airwaves with no-frills infomercials, mixing with voters only occasionally and getting himself free TV whenever possible as he did last night when he appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" after speaking here.
There, he continued his assault on the political establishment, scoffing at the suggestion that he might be excluded from the presidential debates because of his poor showing in the polls.
"It will go down in history as one of the dumbest political pranks they've pulled," he said. "We will be in the debate."
He called Dole's proposal for a 15 percent tax cut "a shell game" and "a sham."
Last night's convention, preceded by a gathering in Long Beach, Calif., the previous Sunday, drew a mixture of die-hard Perot loyalists and those who just want to see a viable third party in American politics.
Many said they did not believe the polls showing Perot with single-digit support. Ann Doyle, 63, a department store worker from Asheville, N.C., said she thought some people were reluctant to openly back the mercurial tycoon because the press portrays his followers as weird. "They are a little afraid to come out," said Doyle. "They are viewed as oddballs."
But Mary Seifer, of Warren, Ohio, had no such concerns. She is a true believer who gathered nearly 2,000 signatures for Perot in her state and believes that he will win the presidency. "I've never been polled," said Seifer, 51.
Seifer said she saw Perot as the best candidate to balance the books in Washington and stop the flow of jobs overseas. By founding the party, "he's given us a gift," she said. "It's another choice."
Perot supporters appear to come from both Democratic and Republican ranks equally. But with Dole in desperate need of independent and swing votes in order to close the gap with Clinton, Perot could pose more of a problem to the Republican.