With Perot fever catching, pollsters start taking the temperature of voters

April 25, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Ross Perot, the Texas business tycoon who is edging rapidly toward an independent candidacy for president, has not tried to hide his contempt for politics as usual and for those who practice it.

And some of those leading political professionals, who usually turn their noses up at anyone trying to end-run the two-party system, say they think Mr. Perot is on to something, this year particularly. His chances can't be dismissed, they say, especially if he delivers on his pledge to spend $100 million of his own money.

The Democratic National Committee is so interested in the prospect of Mr. Perot's wild-card candidacy that it has begun polling on what impact it may have on the candidacies of the two likely party nominees in key states, especially Texas, where he could jeopardize President Bush's hopes of again winning his adopted home state -- and the election.

The Texas Poll of 674 likely voters conducted April 9-18 by Texas A&M University had Mr. Perot leading Mr. Bush in the state 35 percent to 30 percent, with the likely Democratic nominee, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, third with 20 percent. Of those who said they would vote for Mr. Perot, the percentage saying they were Democrats was roughly the same as those saying they were Republicans, indicating he would draw about equally from each major-party candidate.

Republican National Chairman Richard N. Bond declines to comment on Mr. Perot, and Mary Matalin, the Bush-Quayle campaign's political director, says it is too early to base strategy on what impact he might have.

But a leading GOP pollster-analyst, Richard Wirthlin, a mainstay in the campaigns of Ronald Reagan, said bluntly: "I think he's going to have impact and may well determine who will be the next president of the United States, although I personally doubt he'll be that person."

In "thermometer" polling he has done -- asking voters how warm or cold they feel toward the candidates -- Mr. Perot already runs even with Mr. Bush, says Mr. Wirthlin, and 9 percentage points ahead of Mr. Clinton. But slightly more than half those surveyed said they didn't know enough about Mr. Perot to judge.

Mr. Wirthlin says those expressing positive attitudes toward Mr. Perot were in two categories: middle-aged conservatives with incomes of $40,000 or more a year, who might be expected to lean to Mr. Bush, and voters with no high school education, who normally have favored Mr. Clinton in other polls. But because the first group often votes and the second often doesn't, Mr. Wirthlin estimates that for every vote Mr. Clinton would lose to Mr. Perot, Mr. Bush would lose two.

Among the other political pros who take Mr. Perot seriously is David Garth, the New York consultant who managed the last notable independent presidential candidacy, that of John B. Anderson of Illinois in 1980.

Mr. Anderson, after a respectable showing in the polls, slipped in the final weeks of the campaign and finished with just under 7 percent of the vote. "We had no money," Mr. Garth says of that effort. "If Perot is in the 20s [in the polls] and can spend $100 million, and if he runs the right kind of campaign, he can get one-third of the vote and win" in a three-way race.

Another believer is Gerald Austin, the Ohio-based consultant who was a media adviser to former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas this year and for the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson in the 1988 campaign. The likely major-party nominees, Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton, "are two guys who came out of the womb as incumbents," he said, noting their adult lifetime involvement in politics. "The country is looking for somebody different, almost like Eisenhower."

This is a watershed year, Mr. Austin says, the first since post-Watergate 1974, and "Watergate babies [elected then] are dropping like flies. He [Mr. Perot] has to run as an outsider, a big hTC executive with experience on budgets coming in to fix what's broken." But Mr. Perot "has to walk a fine line," Mr. Austin says, "because as soon as he announces, he's another politician."

To sustain his non-politician image, the Ohio consultant says, Mr. Perot should do three things: say he will serve only one term; pick Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general, as his running mate with the specific missions of pushing national health care through Congress and finding an AIDS cure; and hold a people's convention in late August, after the two parties have had theirs, to hit the ground running under a nationwide media spotlight.

Another political pro who makes the point about maintaining the non-politician image is David Axelrod of Chicago, who helped run the successful effort of another "draft" candidate, the late Mayor Harold S. Washington.

"People are hungering for non-political alternatives," said Mr. Axelrod. "Perot as an outsider has that attraction. But just by dint of putting his name on the ballot you lose that patina. His best strategy would be to do nothing, get his name on the ballot and have Bush and Clinton eviscerate each other."

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