WASHINGTON (AP) _ When he launched his Reform Party nearly a year ago, Ross Perot had little patience for the inevitable suggestion he was planning another presidential run. ``This is not about me,'' he insisted.

It is a statement former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm has decided to put to the test.

In announcing his candidacy for the Reform Party presidential nomination Tuesday, Lamm offered a stinging indictment of the two major parties and a sober platform of sacrifice anchored on sweeping changes to Social Security, Medicare and other major entitlement programs.

``Our two major political parties are leading America astray. We all know it. We know it in our heads, and we know it in our hearts,'' Lamm told his Denver audience. ``America has to ask itself not what it wants, but what it can afford.''

Lamm packaged his approach under the catchy slogan of ``Reform and Renewal'' and headed from Denver to California to test his appeal. But whether he gets a sustained national audience depends largely on whether he emerges from Perot's shadow.

When the fledgling Reform Party meets next month to nominate a presidential candidate, it appears that Perot and Lamm will be the leading choices _ if not the only choices.

For weeks, Lamm held off declaring his candidacy, worried that Perot was simply looking for someone to beat for the Reform Party nomination. But after encouragement from some Reform Party activists who don't want Perot as their standard-bearer, Lamm jumped in. He had one last chat with Perot on Monday night, but received no clue about the Texas billionaire's plans.

``He's a good poker player,'' Lamm said. ``They can defeat me but I won't withdraw.''

Perot's office said he had no comment on Lamm's announcement. Instead, he scheduled an appearance tonight on CNN's ``Larry King Live,'' his favorite stage for political theater. ``This is not about me running for president,'' Perot said on the show last October in discussing his plans for a new party. ``The last thing I want is for this thing to be about me.''

But that was not his last word on the subject. Since then, Perot has said he would run if nominated. Aides said they did not know whether Perot was prepared to rule a 1996 candidacy in or out tonight.

Until Perot answers that question, it is difficult to assess how a Reform Party candidacy will affect the presidential contest.

Perot is a known quantity with folksy appeal but also high unfavorable ratings that suggest that appeal is limited. Lamm is virtually unknown outside of Colorado, where he left the governor's office nearly a decade ago. Perot has access to his own fortune and is eligible for $32 million in federal funds because he received 19 percent of the vote in his 1992 independent run. Lamm has raised just $6,000 and the Federal Election Commission hasn't said whether a Reform Party candidate other than Perot would get the federal money.

GOP pollster Linda DiVall predicted Lamm would get a good initial reception because of his ``gruff, candid, straightforward approach.'' But, to borrow a favorite Perot phrase, the devil is in the details, and other candidates who have talked of making major changes to Medicare and Social Security haven't fared well.

Early polling suggest Perot has more appeal among downscale voters than Lamm, leading some Clinton backers to believe Perot is more of a threat to the Democratic incumbent even though Lamm has a Democratic pedigree. Other Democrats worry, however, that once Lamm's history is known, Democrats unhappy with Clinton but in no mood to back Dole might warm to an alternative candidacy.

``Lamm and Perot are not interchangeable,'' said Clinton deputy campaign manager Ann Lewis. ``So for now we can just assume there will be a third party on the ballot. We don't know yet what the dynamic of that will be.''

Still, for all the uncertainty, Lamm's announcement served notice that voters dissatisfied with the Clinton-Dole matchup are likely to have a Reform Party vehicle for their discontent.

Lamm is convinced his could be much more that a protest candidacy, suggesting there was a new, ``no B.S.'' coalition of fiscal conservatives and social moderates waiting to be cobbled together.

``I do not pretend to know things unknown to Bill Clinton and Bob Dole,'' he said. ``The difference is that I'll tell it to you straight while they are invested in hiding the truth in partisan shadows.''

It's a tough sell in any event. And if Lamm is to make a concerted case against Clinton and Dole, he must first escape a shadow of his own.

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EDITOR'S NOTE _ John King covers national politics for The Associated Press.