WASHINGTON -- Few established politicians have jumped on the Ross Perot bandwagon yet -- but quite a few are already jogging alongside.
Lawmakers, mayors and other veteran politicians are increasingly flirting with Mr. Perot as the public's love affair with the blunt-talking Texan continues to grow.
With opinion polls showing a three-way split among President Bush, likely Democratic nominee Bill Clinton and Mr. Perot in the presidential race, candidates for lower offices are wondering whether they should go AWOL from their political parties and enlist in Mr. Perot's burgeoning irregular army.
Richard Mell, a veteran Democratic alderman from Chicago, said yesterday that he will back Mr. Perot for president if the Texan runs.
Meanwhile, in Mr. Perot's home state, a Democratic congressional nominee, John Wayne Caton of Euless, endorsed Mr. Perot this week. His endorsement came one day after the Democratic state convention in Houston, which he attended as a Clinton delegate.
"I think Perot would make a better president," Mr. Caton says flatly. Mr. Caton lost in 1990 to Republican Rep. Dick Armey, whom he'll face again this fall.
Campaign consultant David Heller expects more candidates to side with Mr. Perot, if his popularity survives until Labor Day, the traditional kickoff to the fall campaigns.
"I think a lot of people are just keeping their options open," he said. "If [Mr. Perot's] real, you're going to see a lot of people going with him."
Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, a political independent who met with Mr. Perot recently, says he could wind up supporting the likely independent candidate. And Rep. Chester G. Atkins, a Massachusetts Democrat who headed the state Democratic Party for 13 years, signed Mr. Perot's nomination papers in April, saying, "I'm very favorably impressed by him."
Mr. Atkins, a Tsongas delegate to this summer's Democratic National Convention, calls a Perot endorsement hypothetical at this point. "I consider myself a loyal Democrat," he says, but quickly adds, "I'm not blindly loyal."
In New Hampshire, Larry Brady, a former Reagan administration official running as an independent for U.S. Senate, could be another Perot convert.
"Do I like a lot of things Ross Perot is saying? Absolutely," says Mr. Brady, who narrowly lost a GOP congressional nomination two years ago to incumbent Rep. Bill Zeliff. "I certainly will consider [endorsing Mr. Perot] at some point down the road."
Another possible Perot supporter is Rep. Pete Peterson, a Florida Democrat and friend of the likely independent presidential candidate. Mr. Perot mounted an unsuccessful effort during the Vietnam War to deliver Christmas gifts to American POWs, one of whom was Mr. Peterson.
The congressman could not be reached for comment, and his press spokesman had no information on a possible endorsement.
But Charles E. Cook, who writes a political report that focuses on Capitol Hill, doubts that many sitting members of Congress will back Mr. Perot, even in these times of anti-Congress fever. "If somebody's desperate enough, maybe," he said. "If some members get terrified, there's no telling what they will do."
At the same time, candidates may decide against backing Mr. Perot in the face of likely party retribution.
Mr. Caton said that after his endorsement of Mr. Perot there was "some ostracizing of me" by local Democratic leaders, who told him to forget volunteer help and other assistance. But he said rank-and-file Democratic voters are "generally supportive."
One political analyst suggested that such Perot flirtations are coming from candidates either in political trouble or unable to win election in their own right who are hoping to ride Mr. Perot's popularity into office.
"I'm not sure Ross Perot has coattails," said Mr. Caton. "It certainly was not a motivation on my part." He said his endorsement would probably cost him contributions and support, at least "early on."