Strategists ponder the unpredictable

WITH PEROT, POSSIBILITIES ARE ENDLESS

May 31, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Imagine Bill Clinton winning the South, George Bush taking Massachusetts and snow falling in July -- just about anything seems possible with Ross Perot in the presidential race.

"It really is true now how this completely changes electoral strategy," says John Deardourff, a Republican consultant who has been in touch with the Perot camp.

Polls show Mr. Perot leading in California, Texas and New Jersey, which Mr. Bush won in 1988, and running a close second in several other key states. Even if the Perot phenomenon cools, "he doesn't have to poll a whole lot of votes" to influence the outcome in particular states, notes senior Bush adviser Charles Black.

Political analysts of both parties are spinning scenarios suggesting every conceivable outcome, including the possibility that none of the candidates would get sufficient electoral votes and the race would be decided by the House.

One plot has the Democrats taking back the South from the Republicans on the strength of the black vote for Mr. Clinton, with Mr. Bush and Mr. Perot splitting the white vote.

On the other side, supporters of Mr. Bush point to polls showing that in a three-way race he'd capture states Democrats normally count on winning, like New York and Massachusetts.

Believe in what you want, including a Perot victory, because it's only May and the polls are ambiguous about the sources of Mr. Perot's support. Recent compilations of statewide polls show Mr. Bush leading in at least 14 states with 136 electoral votes, Mr. Perot ahead in six states with 118 electoral votes and Mr. Clinton leading only in his home state of Arkansas with six electoral votes.

Mr. Perot "seems to be drawing about an equal percentage of votes from both" Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton, says pollster J. Bradford Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research in Columbia.

In a California poll, Mr. Perot siphoned 33 percent of the vote Mr. Bush would otherwise receive in a two-way race with Mr. Clinton. The Arkansas governor lost 31 percent of his support to Mr. Perot, Mr. Coker says.

In some states Mr. Perot makes a lopsided race close. Though Mr. Clinton would lose a two-way race in Alabama to Mr. Bush by 17 points, according to a Mason-Dixon poll, a three-way contest would be much tighter: The president leads 36 percent to 28 percent for Mr. Clinton and 22 percent for Mr. Perot.

Mr. Perot's strength is hard to gauge because it's early in the campaign and polls show support for him is soft and uninformed. "The interesting thing is two-thirds of Americans still don't know a lot about him," says GOP pollster Linda DiVall, who cautions against making judgments about his impact.

"I think it defies any kind of simplistic conclusion," she says. "In some areas he hurts Clinton, in some areas he hurts Bush."

Even so, Republican and Democratic leaders try to make the case that Mr. Perot hurts the opposition more. Democrats point to the possibility of Mr. Perot winning his native Texas, which Mr. Bush claims as his adopted home state. Republicans chortle over Mr. Clinton's loss of the spotlight to Mr. Perot.

"This election is about George Bush and somebody," says James Lake, deputy manager of the Bush campaign. "Maybe it's one somebody and maybe it's two. Right now Bill Clinton has got to struggle to make himself one of the somebodies."

Neither the Bush nor the Clinton campaign admits to any change in basic strategy to cope with Mr. Perot. "You stay on your game plan," says Paul Tully, political director of the Democratic National Committee.

Mary Matalin, political director of the Bush campaign, insists Mr. Perot is "not influencing our strategy right now." But she acknowledges he has opened up the campaign, turning it into "a 50-state game now" by making expected Republican and Democratic states more "competitive."

Both campaigns clearly are more conscious of their bases in light of Mr. Perot's encroachment on them.

"The first mission you have in any general election campaign is consolidating your base," Mr. Black says. "It just takes more work when you've got some people who strayed from the base."

While officials of both campaigns say they take Mr. Perot seriously, many predict his popularity will diminish as he comes under greater scrutiny. But Mr. Deardourff says he shouldn't be underestimated.

"I think he is much stronger in the country than anybody originally gave him credit for being," says Mr. Deardourff, who is a good friend of Thomas W. Luce III, Mr. Perot's top adviser and likely campaign manager.

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