Perot phenomenon dazes Bush, Clinton campaigns ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

May 21, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- What's been said about the weather -- that everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it -- could be said right now about the Ross Perot phenomenon and the reaction of the George Bush and Bill Clinton campaigns.

For weeks now, Perot has energetically blotted out the sun of publicity for the presumptive Republican and Democratic presidential candidates by popping up on television with more frequency than Jay Leno, and by continuing to give newspaper interviews while contending he is busy doing his homework.

In the process, both President Bush and the Arkansas governor have seen the Texas billionaire pass them in many polls on presidential preference, reducing them to supporting actors in the latest real-life version of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

When candidates drop in the polls, they usually take some action to improve their standing, often these days by doing what they can to help the voters see the flaws -- real or manufactured -- of the leading candidate. But so far at least, the Bush and Clinton campaigns are trying hard to ignore Perot rather than attack him.

Part of the rationale for this posture is belief, or hope, that the news media will do the job for them by scrutinizing Perot and his record in business and politics much more closely. The conventional wisdom is that once the press spotlight really shines on him, his potential as a serious candidate will rapidly diminish.

Beyond that, the Bush and Clinton campaigns each argue that Perot is hurting the other guy more. Charles Black, a Bush insider, says: "He is so lighting up the radar screen that Clinton doesn't have a chance to overcome his negatives." But Paul Begala, a Clinton strategist, argues: "I have a policy of never interrupting somebody who is criticizing George Bush."

Both sides are correct. The Perot phenomenon has hogged the news to such a degree that Clinton's efforts to get his campaign back on substantive issues after weathering all the allegations of personal misconduct raised against him, and to redirect the campaign from a contest for Democratic convention delegates to a debate with Bush, have been crowded out.

At the same time, Perot in his many television appearances and newspaper and magazine interviews has targeted his criticisms almost entirely against Bush, giving Clinton a free ride. In some ways, Perot makes it sound as if Clinton is irrelevant in the 1992 presidential race and that he is engaged in a personal vendetta against Bush.

But befuddlement about how serious a candidate Perot will be, and what impact he will have on the general-election campaign, has appeared to immobilize the Bush and Clinton camps. Neither one wants to go after him right now and risk further alienation of the hundreds of thousands who have already signed a petition to place him on their state ballots, and the millions of others who may yet do so, or support him once he qualifies.

At the same time, however, the mere threat of the Perot candidacy, and a possible electoral-vote stalemate in November, causing some fresh thinking about campaign strategy. "In a three-way race," Black says, "all 50 states are in play." That is, no state can be ignored, and new opportunities and pitfalls present themselves with Perot in the race.

For example, Black and other Bush strategists say, winning the critical state of Texas will require a greater effort with Perot on the ballot, and possibly in California as well -- two states that could be decisive in the November outcome. By the same token, though, Bush might well have a better shot in New York, where Perot could undercut Clinton's support there.

There has been some talk that the Liberal Party in New York might list Perot as its general-election candidate instead of Clinton, raising the possibility that in a three-way race Bush could carry the state and its big electoral-vote prize.

Meanwhile, each of the major-party candidates is trying to break through the Perot clutter, while not appearing to voters to be two squabbling political insiders scratching at each other and behaving as just the sort of business-as-usual politicians that Perot paints them as being. Like the rest of us, they don't yet know what to make of this overnight phenomenon, or what to do about him.

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