WASHINGTON -- Even before Texas billionaire Ross Perot has declared his candidacy, polls are suggesting that momentum for the political maverick has stalled and that Americans may be having second thoughts about him as the next president.
Vice President Dan Quayle, seizing on these latest numbers, said yesterday he believed Mr. Perot's campaign "is beginning to fizzle" and cited as further evidence what he had started to "feel" as he traveled around the country.
Taking a swing at Mr. Perot, the current front-runner in the presidential race and the Republicans' most formidable opponent at the moment, Mr. Quayle told a group of radio talk show hosts meeting here yesterday that he believes people are now raising questions about the businessman and his "irrational behavior."
But the Democrats are not as convinced that the Perot bandwagon has run out of gas. Presidential candidate Bill Clinton, speaking to the same group later in the day, passed up the chance to back the Quayle "fizzle" theory.
Democratic strategist Bob Beckel says the Republicans "have decided the way to make Ross Perot fizzle is to say he's fizzling." But he adds that there's some indication the Perot fervor "may have peaked or leveled off for a moment while people are seeking a second look."
In fact, while there's no conclusive proof that Mr. Perot has started to slip, there is some evidence that the momentum has stalled, and some indication that, as voters get to know him better, they're seeing him in a less favorable light.
A Gallup survey released this week shows that, while support for Mr. Perot grew steadily from late March to mid-May -- at the same time support for Mr. Bush fell -- it has leveled off in the past month. In fact, in early June, Mr. Perot was the favorite of 39 percent of registered voters asked about their choice in a three-way race, ahead of both Mr. Bush, who earned 31 percent, and Mr. Clinton at 25 percent.
But in the last two weeks, Mr. Perot's support has returned to the 34 percent he was earning in mid-May, not a decrease with any significance in this poll, but an indication that the expected independent candidate has settled into a level of support that may be hard to top.
But Frank Luntz, a pollster for Mr. Perot, disputes any suggestion that support is leveling off. "No one out there would argue that Perot's support isn't wide and isn't deep. One day a poll shows you at 36, the next day you're at 34. It's absolutely meaningless," he said.
Perhaps more meaningful is the question of whether Mr. Perot will manage to hold onto this slight lead -- which would likely send him to the White House if the election were held today -- or whether, with increased press scrutiny and exposure, some of his early luster will fade.
Already, slightly more people view him negatively than did last month. In May, only 25 percent of those questioned had an unfavorable view of Mr. Perot as compared to 30 percent who this month say they're unimpressed with him.
Mr. Luntz discounts this, calling it "a blip."
Still, one such disenchanted voter, Ron Schroeder of Lincoln, Neb., has changed his mind recently. Mr. Schroeder had been leaning toward Mr. Perot until late last month when the possible presidential contender, in a televised interview with Barbara Walters, said he'd be reluctant to appoint a known homosexual to a high-ranking Cabinet position.
"That struck me as rather homophobic and has made me much more cautious," says Mr. Schroeder, who now is leaning toward Mr. Clinton. "I'm going to listen much more carefully to see what he's really made of."
Mr. Quayle attributed the "fizzle" to Mr. Perot's recent hiring of political strategists Hamilton Jordan and Ed Rollins. "Ross Perot, who has said, 'I'm this outside person,' all of a sudden hired a couple millionaire handlers to tell him all the inside scoop. And since hiring those millionaire handlers, he has started to drop in the polls," the vice president told the talk show hosts.
He blamed those "handlers" for Mr. Perot's recent cancellation of his scheduled appearance later this month before a Senate panel investigating the fate of American POWs held in Southeast Asia. "That is a sign of irrational behavior to one day say he's going to testify and the next day to back down," Mr. Quayle said.