AUGUSTA, MAINE — Bob Dole vanquished his primary opponents months ago. President Clinton was unopposed by any other Democrat. But one major US political figure has just begun running for his own party's nomination for president: Ross Perot.
A vintage Perot, complete with witty one-liners and colorful graphs depicting America's woeful economic problems, faced off with his Reform Party opponent, former Gov. Richard Lamm, at the party's Maine's convention Saturday.
The long-awaited appearance with Mr. Lamm, who is vying with Mr. Perot for the Reform Party nomination, was the first joint meeting between the two candidates and was a test of Lamm's support within the party.
Two days after Lamm announced he would run for president as a Reform Party candidate, Perot entered the race, raising questions about Lamm's chances.
The two candidates appeared Saturday at a Reform Party convention in Charlottesville, Va.
In Maine, it appeared from the reaction of the crowd that Perot is still the party's favorite. Roughly half of the 300 in attendance left the convention after Perot's address. Lamm had not yet spoken.
Charlie Thompson, a party member who listened to Lamm's 15-minute speech, said he was not impressed by Lamm.
"I am voting for Perot," he says. "[Perot] talks simply. He's organized. But Lamm didn't convince me." He said Lamm's speech appeared unrehearsed and lacked specifics.
Many political analysts believe that Perot will emerge as the Reform Party presidential nominee at the August 18 convention in Valley Forge, Pa.: He has the money, the experience, and the grass-roots support.
"Perot is an honest man," says Theo Turcolte, of West Gardiner, Maine. "With a huge debt of $5 trillion, we need a turnaround in this country. Certainly, Perot's not looking for personal gain."
PEROT hammered away on several core themes: reforming current campaign finance laws, balancing the federal budget, and protecting American jobs from unfair trade practices.
Many of his comments focused on President Clinton. He criticized, for example, the gas tax increase that was part of Clinton's 1993 budget package, the State of the Union address ("Broadway at its best"), and the administration's recent trade agreements as "stupid, one-sided trade deals."
Despite such criticisms, however, many political analysts believe that a Perot ticket would be more detrimental for Republican candidate Dole.
Others say any third-party candidate threatens Dole. "It makes it more difficult with a multiplicity of candidates to catch up to Clinton," says Christian Potholm, professor of Governmental and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and a political pollster for Command Research.
Recent public opinion polls show Clinton with a commanding lead over Dole. They give Perot between 11 percent and 16 percent of the vote if an election were held today. With Lamm as its candidate, the Reform Party's support would dip to about 5 percent.
Maine has long lent strong support to independent political candidates. The state's governor, Angus King, is independent and more than a third of the roughly million voters in Maine are registered as independents. "Maine has a tradition of taking candidates on their merits," says Mr. Potholm.
In the 1992 presidential election, Perot garnered 30 percent of the vote in Maine - his highest percentage anywhere during the election. His support here is thought to be key to powering a second presidential candidacy.