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Reform Party; Resurgent Dole

Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm's entry into the presidential race Tuesday is a big boost for the Reform Party whose nomination he seeks. It gives the party more credibility as a third force in American politics, and could help transform it from a personal vehicle for billionaire Ross Perot.

Mr. Perot's declaration on "Larry King Live" that he would run if the Reform Party nominated him shows that Mr. Lamm is far from assured the nomination. Lamm must first get 10 percent of the mail-in vote from party members and then defeat Perot at the party's convention. Ironically (or perhaps not), if the party had a real nomination fight, its convention could turn out to be the most exciting of the summer, garnering Reform lots of free publicity.

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As a candidate, the governor has several advantages over Perot. Most important, he has actually held elective office, as both a Democratic state representative and as governor. He's run a government, and not badly at that. He is more consistent in his public behavior.

Like Perot, Lamm has the political courage to tell voters a lot of truths they might rather not hear. But also like Perot, he sometimes has a tendency to talk first and think later. His extraordinarily blunt and direct manner may not play well as network-news sound bites - or in major-party negative campaign commercials.

Lamm's biggest problem is Perot's biggest advantage: money. He doesn't have Perot's personal fortune or name recognition, and it seems doubtful that the Federal Election Commission would allow him to claim millions in matching funds based on Perot's 19 percent showing in 1992 as an independent.

It's difficult to say whom a Lamm or Perot candidacy would hurt more, but it probably damages the GOP's Bob Dole by splitting the anti-Clinton vote. However, Lamm's call for radical reform of Medicare and Social Security could resonate among younger voters, who broke heavily for Clinton last time.

Dole lurches along

Meanwhile, there was good news and bad news for Mr. Dole last week. The bad news was the hole he dug himself into during his "Today" show interview with Katie Couric, when he said he didn't know if tobacco is addictive, blamed the "liberal media" for distorting his views, and agreed that former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop had been "brainwashed" by the media into denouncing Dole's position on tobacco.

Dole had a point: Some media reports have distorted his views, and the Democrats throwing stones at him over tobacco are living in a glass house. But grumbling at the popular Ms. Couric and the "liberal media" doesn't play well. There are a lot of liberal reporters, but they haven't treated Dole all that badly, and he has to take responsibility for his own gaffes.

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Dole's good news was that national and state polls finally started moving in his direction. The drip, drip, drip of Whitewater, the FBI files, stories about Hillary Rodham Clinton "conversing" with Eleanor Roosevelt, and a couple of high-visibility books with unsupported allegations haven't helped President Clinton. Whereas Clinton led Dole 54 percent to 31 percent in a June 25 PoliticsNow/ICR poll, by the end of June, Dole had risen to 39 percent in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey. Clinton's lead has shrunk in Florida, Michigan, and California.

According to David Winston of PoliticsNow, while Clinton held on to his voters, undecided Republicans are coming back to Dole. The Kansan got more than 82 percent among Republicans polled at the end of June; he needs at least 80 percent GOP support to win. How relevant the polls are at this point is difficult to say. Voters still aren't really paying attention. And in any case, it is the state-by-state electoral-college vote that counts, not nationwide surveys. A viable Reform candidate will certainly complicate the math.

What Dole most needs now is to give voters a reason to vote for him, a problem for him since Day 1. His task hasn't been made easier by President Clinton's co-opting of several Republican themes at the prompting of strategist Dick Morris. And the White House's $15 million-plus demagogic negative-ad campaign over the last year has led to even more public confusion about what Dole stands for.

Dole's staff says he'll announce his vision for America at the GOP mid-August convention in San Diego. It reportedly will include a call for change in the tax system. For many Republicans, it won't come a minute too soon.

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