Why, one might ask, would an overflow crowd of reporters show up for a breakfast with a presidential aspirant who, it would seem, has such a small chance of reaching his goal? The answer clearly is this: With polls showing that a majority of voters don't care too much for the Republican candidate and don't trust the Democratic incumbent, this might be the moment when an outsider could ride a third-party movement into the White House.
To take advantage of this opportunity the challenger must have the intelligence, appearance, and record of achievement to capture the allegiance of an electorate lukewarm about its present choices. Tall, white-maned, articulate, three-time Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm clearly had persuaded these reporters that he possesses the qualifications needed to become a credible candidate.
Veteran journalists have learned that the unexpected is the norm in American politics. They know that the rise of a contending third party is unlikely - but that it could happen. That's why they were giving Mr. Lamm the time and respect they usually accord to candidates of the two major parties.
Lamm, whose Colorado constituents affectionately dubbed him "Governor Gloom" because of his willingness to call a spade a spade, is upbeat about his own future: "I believe I have a 50-50 chance of getting the nomination." He indicated that he thought most of the Reform Party members - "a large, cantankerous, independent group of people" - would rally behind him and not Ross Perot. "We've got 1.3 million people out there," he said. "I estimate that 10 to 15 percent are hard-core Perot followers. The rest of them are up for grabs."
A reporter asked: "If you do get the nomination, is there a route to the presidency for you?"
"Sure," Lamm replied. "It seems to me that great politics are made by taking great risks. This is the kind of year when anything can happen."
At the beginning of the morning session, a reporter asked him "the question that Roger Mudd asked of Teddy Kennedy and which Kennedy flubbed":
"Why do you want to be president?"
Lamm's thoughtful answer: "Starting back in 1980 I began writing and speaking about how America's problems were outrunning our solutions. I feel the United States is facing nation-threatening problems that we are simply avoiding. If we can't make sense out of the next 30 or 40 years, my generation is going to be accused by history of being the poorest trustee in American history."
To avoid a bankrupt nation and a younger generation that soon will face tremendous financial problems, the Colorado candidate proposes "sacrifice" - not a particularly attractive course of action. He says it is imperative that the budget be balanced. To do so, he says Social Security benefits for high-income retirees must be cut, veterans' benefits must be slashed, people must pay more for Medicare, and a big gasoline tax must be imposed on motorists.
After the breakfast I talked to several reporters who sat in on this session. None thought Lamm had much of a chance; yet all said they believed this challenge from the liberal side of the Democratic Party, from a politician whose record as a governor had been so impressive, just might be the beginning of the emergence of a third-party movement that could contest strongly for the presidency. In the short run, of course, it's clear if Lamm picks up the Reform Party nomination he will take more votes away from Clinton than from Dole. That's just the opposite of what Perot's candidacy is likely to do.
At the end of the breakfast, Lamm summed up his mood when he told us, "I'm passionate about the future of America and what needs to be done.... I'm sobered by the magnitude of the task" of being president.