NEW YORK (AP) _ The rich just keep getting richer.

The 1996 annual ranking of the 400 wealthiest Americans by Forbes magazine includes a record 121 billionaires, 27 more than last year.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett again lead the list with a combined fortune between them of $33.5 billion. That's nearly as much as President Clinton's proposed tax break to help middle-class parents pay for their children's college education.

The ranking appears in the magazine's Oct. 14 issue, released Sunday.

The Forbes ranking came as the Census Bureau just reported that the earning power of everyone in the country increased last year for the first time in six years, reducing the number of poor as wages climbed faster than inflation.

But while regular folks' salaries inched up, the coffers of the rich have ballooned, helped by the stock market's extended rally and the American fervor for computers, phones and the Internet.

For the first time, the average net worth of the Forbes 400 exceeds $1 billion.

Longtime multimillionaires in businesses like finance, retail, oil and real estate remain on the list, joined this year by many fresh faces.

Kenneth Tuchman, a 36-year-old entrepreneur now worth $1 billion through his telephone marketing company TeleTech Holdings Inc., and Joseph Liemandt, a 28-year-old self-made software developer worth $500 million, are two of the 43 new entrants.

Daniel Ziff, 24, part of a trio of billion-dollar brothers from Ziff Brothers Investment, founded with money from publisher father William Ziff Jr., is the youngest on the list.

As for the regulars, Microsoft Corp. chairman Gates remained No. 1 and venerable investor Buffett No. 2, for the third consecutive year.

Gates, 40, of Bellvue, Wash., tipped the scales at $18.5 billion, up from $14.8 billion last year, according to Forbes.

Buffett, 66, of Omaha, Neb., saw his net worth jump to $15 billion from $11.8 in 1994, as the stock market boom boosted longtime stakes in blue chips such as Coca-Cola Co., Gillette Co. and Wells Fargo & Co. held by his Berkshire Hathaway Inc. investment company.

Rounding out the top five are Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Metromedia Co. chairman John Kluge, who switched positions from the previous list, and Oracle Corp. chief Lawrence Ellison, who vaulted up from No. 16.

Allen, 43, of Mercer Island, Wash., also owns the Portland Trail Blazers and has investments in more than two dozen new technology ventures. His net worth climbed to $7.5 billion from $6.1 billion.

Kluge, 82, of Charlottesville, Va., is focusing on developing wireless cable, radio, telephone and paging services in several countries. Kluge is now worth $7.2 billion, up from $6.7 billion.

Ellison, 52, of Atherton, Calif., has been promoting a low-cost computer that provides Internet access, hoping it will spur even broader sales of Oracle's popular software. At $4.2 billion in last year's list, Forbes said Ellison is now worth $6 billion.

Other notables in the list include the reemergence of ``Star Wars'' producer George Lucas, who jumped back onto the list at No. 48 with $2 billion as the most sought-after special effects guru in Hollywood.

Off the list this year are Walt Disney Co. chief Michael Eisner and former Disney head and current Dreamworks SKG partner Jeffrey Katzenberg.