Will Dick Lamm Be The Ross Perot Of '96?

The '96 Presidential race may soon have a new entrant who eschews the politics of joy. His bitter message: America is headed for fiscal Armageddon, and neither Bill Clinton nor Bob Dole will sound the alarm.

Meet ex-Colorado Governor Richard D. Lamm--"Governor Gloom," as he was known back home. The registered Democrat hopes to be the nominee of Ross Perot's Reform Party, which will announce its Presidential candidate at an Aug. 18 convention in Valley Forge, Pa. Convinced that the nation is headed for bankruptcy when baby boomers begin to retire, Lamm wants to overhaul Social Security, Medicare, military pensions, veterans programs, and nearly every other budgetary sacred cow Clinton and Dole are afraid to touch. "I'm coming from the most fiscally irresponsible generation in American history," Lamm says. Fixing the budget, he adds, will take an effort "equal to the magnitude of the civil rights movement."

Bold talk, for sure. But while the little-known Lamm has faint chance of taking the White House, his message could dog the two parties in '96. After all, Perot's crusade for a balanced budget in the 1992 campaign pressured Clinton and congressional Republicans to make deficit reduction a top priority. "We need more kamikaze candidates willing to fall on their swords to get the message out," says Steven E. Schier, a political scientist at Minnesota's Carleton College.

SHALLOW POCKETS. Lamm's pain-and-sacrifice agenda sure isn't hurting him with the Perot crowd. His June 1 speech to California's Reform Party set off a groundswell to make him this year's standard-bearer. His ideas include partially privatizing Social Security and raising the retirement age, rationing health care, tightening curbs on immigration, phasing out affirmative action over 10 years, shuttering veterans hospitals, and enacting campaign finance reform.

But will the Texas billionaire let someone else lead the movement he founded and bankrolled? Perot isn't saying. Lamm thinks he would win in a fair fight. Perot "ran a wonderful teach-in in '92 to wake up the country," Lamm told BUSINESS WEEK. Now, he says, most Perotistas "don't think he's the best to take this party to the next stage."

The next stage is to build on Perot's impressive 19% vote in 1992. Polls show Perot below that now because, political pros say, voters believe he's too eccentric. Lamm is more credible. "He's not paranoid like Perot," says Democratic strategist Ted Van Dyk. But then, neither is Lamm a tycoon who can finance his candidacy himself. Raising the $20 million that Lamm estimates he'll need to register on voters' radar screens will be very tough.

DOLE'S LOSS? Lamm has other liabilities. In 1984, he provoked a storm by suggesting the terminally ill shouldn't prolong their lives and hence their medical costs. And as governor, he was caught in an ethical flap: He parlayed $5,000 into $40,000 with money that his ex-law partner invested for him with a Denver stockbroker later convicted of racketeering. Although Lamm was cleared of wrongdoing, he admits the episode is valid to raise "if I'm saying we have to restore trust in government."

Such candor doesn't win Presidential elections, say pols, who figure Lamm appeals only to a small group of moderate Republicans and suburban independents. "A vote for Dick Lamm, Ross Perot, or any other third-party candidate is a vote for Bill Clinton," worries one Dole operative. Clinton strategists happily concur. Boldly, Lamm predicts he can win a "principled plurality" of 40%. That's unlikely. But he could force Clinton and Dole to confront critical issues that both candidates are trying awfully hard to avoid.