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Laurence I. Barrett/Washington

The summer feints and machinations of American politics have not spared the Reform Party of Ross Perot. Richard Lamm, the former Democratic Governor of Colorado, has made no secret of his long-shot hope to become the party’s presidential nominee. This week he plans to announce that he will actually run for it. Then it’s on to an appearance on a favorite Perot stage, CNN’s Larry King Live. But two important questions remain for Lamm. Is the perpetually coy Perot still determined to run himself and merely using Lamm as a prop to generate attention? And even if Lamm were to get the nomination, could he raise enough money to make a credible showing? Indeed, Lamm must get mail-in support from 10% of Reform members merely to address the party’s convention next month.

Perot and his advisers have deflected Lamm’s repeated requests for their intentions. “I’ve never seen people play it so close to the vest,” Lamm says. “But,” he adds, “I’ve had an epiphany. This guy is testing me.” By this calculus Lamm passes Perot’s exam by showing he can rally Perotistas and be an effective advocate for reining in entitlement spending and reforming the campaign-finance system. Lamm intends to use his candidacy as a “national teach-in” on those issues.

Perot’s high command has given Lamm some pro forma encouragement. An initial mailing sent to Reform supporters last week lists only Perot and Lamm as “most frequently mentioned” prospects (voters can write in others). Further, Perot has promised not to use his fortune to promote his own prospects between now and the time his party’s two-phase convention begins on Aug. 11.

If in fact Lamm becomes the nominee, federal law would prevent Perot from directly underwriting the candidacy the way he did his own in 1992. But the billionaire has privately assured Lamm that some money would be available. Perot would appeal to party members for donations, and estimates that more than $20 million could be raised that way. He could also make “independent expenditures” to assist Lamm, provided the spending was done without coordination between benefactor and beneficiary.

With this decision Lamm is rearranging his life on short notice and going against the counsel of his political advisers and his wife, an active Democrat who has backed Bill Clinton. Says Lamm: “I’m rolling some pretty high dice on the premise that Perot is sincere.” Perot meanwhile was content to let Lamm have the stage to himself–at least for the moment. Perot spent last week on vacation with his family in Bermuda, where gambling is illegal and U.S. politics seems distant.

–By Laurence I. Barrett/Washington

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