SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The avalanche of petitions bearing signatures of California voters who want Ross Perot's name on their presidential ballot, displayed here and in the Republican stronghold of Orange County yesterday, serves notice that he intends to wage a campaign not only on television but in neighborhoods as well.
Not since the campaign finance reform laws of 1974 and 1976, which effectively channeled presidential campaign spending into paid television and out of grass-roots politicking, has there been such a potential for the latter. Perot says more than a million signatures have been gathered, with more to come, although only 134,781 are required.
Perot's pledge to spend $100 million-plus or whatever it takes to give his supporters "a world-class campaign" has been widely interpreted to mean that he will outspend President Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton on television, which is probably true so far as that expectation goes. Bush and Clinton will be limited to about $56 million each in taxpayer funds on the condition that they neither raise nor spend campaign funds on their own. Perot, taking no federal money, is free to spend all he wants.
Increasingly since the enactment of the federal spending limits and campaign subsidy, candidates have chosen to sock the bulk of their money into paid television, leaving relatively little for grass-roots work. No matter how many volunteers a candidate can muster, it means little if they don't have the money to rent storefront offices in the neighborhoods and supply the volunteers with material to distribute. "Soft money" raised by the parties for voter registration and turnout can meet only a modest amount of this need.
If Perot lives up to his word, that will not be a problem for him. And putting the presidential campaign back in the nation's neighborhoods, with local residents enthusiastically thumping for him, offers the hope of driving out the apathy and cynicism that has gripped American politics in the era of campaign-by-television.
It is ironic that just as Clinton and Bush are catching on to Perot's crafty use of television entertainment talk shows to bypass the critical press, he appears to have the capacity through his money and volunteer manpower to go beyond television communication and put politics back on Main Street.
Not all of the million-plus voters said to have signed Perot ballot petitions in California are ready, to be sure, to work in the local vineyards for Perot, but many thousands here and across the country are doing it now and say they will continue through Election Day.
Much depends, no doubt, on whether Perot can maintain his credibility with them as the heat of campaign discussion and debate intensifies, but so far he has shown great cunning in dodging pesky press questions.
A big question in California is whether volunteers can pull off a presidential campaign outside any party apparatus in such a vast state. The conventional wisdom in California is that its size makes extensive grass-roots campaigning fruitless, and that the only sensible approach is to go for more bang for the available buck -- on television. But with all the bucks Perot says he will make available, it may be another story.
In the 1984 Democratic primary, Gary Hart attempted to organize at the congressional district level and he did fairly well. In 1988, Michael Dukakis tried a limited grass-roots approach but lost, though narrowly, to Bush. When former Gov. Jerry Brown was the California Democratic chairman, he had dreams of doing the same, but the effort fell far short.
Perot isn't the first candidate running as a non-politician who has excited voters at the grass-roots level. Television evangelist Pat Robertson succeeded for a time in 1988 before running out of money and credibility. But Robertson never led a national poll as Perot does today, as well as being ahead in the most recent Los Angeles Times poll in California. It had Perot at 39 percent to 26 percent for Clinton and 25 percent for Bush, who appears to need a split of the strong anti-Bush vote here between Perot and Clinton to have a chance to carry critical California.
Getting on the ballot is only a first step, but the potential campaign manpower it offers is enough to keep Bush and Clinton awake nights figuring how to counter it on their limited budgets.