Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm's entry into the presidential race signals more than the appearance of a new, provocative voice on the national political scene.
The disaffected Democrat's decision to seek a third-party nomination, announced July 9 in Denver, could spur a nationwide debate about major policy questions that so far have not materialized in the presidential campaign.
"Governor Lamm brings the issues," says former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, another Democrat unhappy with both major parties. "All the issues he talks about are those that the main parties have either avoided, like entitlements, or rejected out of self-interest, like campaign reform."
Lamm preaches an "eat your spinach" kind of sermon that may alarm some Americans but attract others. He wants the retirement age raised to 70, and cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients reduced. He proposes rationing health care.
Can he make trouble for President Clinton or Bob Dole? Pundits are divided. Lamm himself acknowledges he can't raise a lot of money - his campaign war chest so far boasts $6,000 - but Pat Buchanan has shown that money isn't everything in politics.
It's also possible that if Lamm wins the nomination of Ross Perot's Reform Party, which he is seeking, he could tap into the $32 million in federal matching funds that Mr. Perot is entitled to based on his showing in the 1992 race.
And Lamm gives the media something to talk about in a ho-hum race. On July 9, he was to appear on CNN's Larry King Live, the platform from which Perot launched his 1992 campaign. (The next night, Perot himself will be Mr. King's guest, an event that will be watched for clues as to whether Perot will run again - as a challenger to Lamm.)
Beyond questions of Lamm's viability as a candidate, his decision to run - and the legitimacy the three-term governor's decision gives to Perot's nascent Reform Party - reflects the deep dissatisfaction among voters with the two main parties. While third parties are a staple of American politics, they usually sting once and die. Now, with polls showing upwards of 40 percent of voters are unhappy with the two main presidential contenders, third parties are becoming more a permanent part of the political landscape.
"We now have a 2-1/2-party system," says Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster.
Mr. Ciruli, who has known Lamm a long time, sees the potential for the ex-governor-turned-academic, to carve out a substantial portion of the electorate.
If Perot doesn't run, Ciruli says Lamm can attract a large portion of his voters - 19 percent of the 1992 electorate - and can expand on that base with baby-boomer, college-educated suburbanites. "I think it's possible he could hit 30 percent," says Ciruli.
Polling on Perot varies widely. In mid-June, a Gallup survey put him at 17 percent vs. Bob Dole and President Clinton. But polls in more than 40 states by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research show him typically garnering the support of 5 to 6 percent of those surveyed. So the question for Lamm is whether, as a candidate for the Perot party's nomination, he can transcend Perot's negatives. And there's always the danger that the mercurial Texas billionaire will win the Reform Party nomination or decide to run himself, making it appear he just used Lamm to make his party look more democratic.
Regardless of Perot's own image problems, Del Ali, a Mason-Dixon pollster, says there's a clear market for a credible third-party candidate. "Any valid third-party candidate starts at 19 or 20 percent," he says.
But to achieve validity, Lamm will have to watch his tongue, he and others caution. "His instinct is to shoot from the hip," says Mr. Tsongas, who has not endorsed any candidate yet. "The question is whether he can grow as a politician. There's a big difference between running for the Senate or for governor and running for president. Every outrageous statement will be magnified, and it could take away from the important things he has to say."
Lamm, for example, uses blunt language in opposing expensive medical procedures for senior citizens who are in poor health. When he ran for the Senate in 1992, he lost in the primary to then-Democratic congressman Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
Even if Lamm represents the longest of long-shots to win it all in November, he could cause trouble for either Clinton or Dole.
Historically, third-party candidates that win more than 5 percent of the vote end up hurting the incumbent party - even tipping the balance toward defeat. Facing a disaffected member of his own party does not help Clinton.
But if the race tightens up between Clinton and Dole, Lamm would likely take more votes from Dole, says political analyst William Schneider. "He'll be splitting the anti-Clinton vote," he says.
For the public, though, the injection of a no-holds-barred, articulate advocate may matter more in the end than how Lamm would affect the horse race. "He's an entrepreneur of ideas," says Denver pollster Ciruli, noting Lamm's many books. "Polls show a hunger, a yearning to get someone like him to the table."