ANNAPOLIS -- With 125,000 signatures on a petition to get his name on the Maryland ballot and polls showing their man running neck and neck with Bill Clinton and George Bush, supporters of Ross Perot here say they're convinced that change is overdue.
"Enthusiasm is growing. It's a phenomenon. The people have chosen Perot," says Joan Vinson-Stallings, director of the Maryland draft-Perot campaign.
On June 24, Mr. Perot is to speak from the State House steps at noon, after a symbolic delivery of his candidacy petitions by a flotilla of 24 boats docking in Annapolis and a parade from the city dock to the State House grounds. Eventually, the petitions will be delivered to local election boards
The Texas billionaire's appeal among voters is clearly showing up in the polls.
A newly released survey of 815 registered Maryland voters by Mason Dixon Political-Media Research Inc. shows that a Bush-Clinton-Perot race would be a dead heat in Maryland if the election were held now.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was backed by 29 percent of those polled between June 3 and 5, while Mr. Perot received 28 percent and President Bush 27 percent. Those are statistically insignificant differences in a poll with a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
The chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties in Maryland concede that Mr. Perot's candidacy is strong here, and they agree that it's probably hurting President Bush more than Mr. Clinton.
But they also insist that voter infatuation with Mr. Perot will fade as the November election draws closer and that their respective party candidates will move ahead.
Nathan Landow, the Democratic Party chairman, acknowledged that Mr. Perot "currently, at least, has the broadest base of support in Maryland." He said Mr. Clinton's support is primarily among blacks in Baltimore and in Prince George's County.
To win voters back from Mr. Perot and to challenge President Bush effectively, Mr. Landow said, Governor Clinton needs to broaden his appeal, perhaps by adopting some of the economic policy approaches that made former U.S. Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts the winner of Maryland's Democratic primary in March.
"There's no question [Mr. Perot] will have some pull with Republicans," agreed Maryland GOP Chairman Joyce Terhes. She suggested some of the Perot support may be coming from disaffected conservative Democrats who shifted to Ronald Reagan and the Republicans in the 1980s.
"They may be toying with the idea of Perot," she said, but predicted that when voters finally focus on the race this fall, they likely will abandon Mr. Perot for President Bush.
Waiting for Perot is not enough, of course, for Ms. Stallings, who depends on volunteers such as Allison Harmon to circulate the petitions, get out the mailings, commission campaign songs and raise a few bucks.
Ms. Stallings says the money-raising has been necessary and somewhat difficult because the billionaire candidate vows to use his own money -- after he's on the ballot and fully declared as a candidate. In the here-and-now, however, the Perot campaign needed money for printing and mailing and other campaign basics.
So far, Marylanders have put about $20,000 into the petty cash drawer at Perot headquarters in Annapolis -- about half the $40,000 Ms. Stallings wanted to raise for the effort to get the candidate's name on the Maryland ballot.
"We're asking for much more than money," she says -- and getting it.
Even the national campaign directors, she senses, "don't know what to do with all the enthusiasm and emotion and support. There is a sense that the momentum has to be maintained and that initial supporters have to be gotten to the polls."
A newsletter called "the Citizen" is now in circulation to Perot backers and others. A "very inclusive," $15-a-person fund-raiser was held and the first mailing went out recently to 6,000 volunteers.
"We have college presidents and brain surgeons -- a blind man in DTC Baltimore asking how he can help. It's not just the country club set," she says.
The campaign rests with people like Ms. Stallings, and Ms. Harmon, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Maryland. She listened to Mr. Perot on the Larry King television talk show. "His message is so simple," she says: analyze the problems, put open-minded experts to work on them and forget about the self-serving cliques who have their minds made up.
"How can you not agree with it? I look at his business dealings and see success. If implemented with the federal government, these procedures of his will work."
A true believer is in need of no more facts, Ms. Harmon says: "I'm here to stay."
She's a Democrat, but the Perot camp is drawing support from all points on the political and demographic spectrum, according to Ms. Stallings.
June A. Thomas of Annapolis is a senior citizen and a Republican who has worked for a succession of local and national candidates in Anne Arundel County.
"I'm tired of the government being turned over to grafters," she says, aiming her charge at both parties.
"Washington has become a bad word for many people. You have to live with what's in your front yard, your back yard and your side yard," she said, "but you do have to get a little fresh air now and then."