Political pundits huff over Ross Perot's refusal to play the usual campaign game -- "He won't talk about the issues!" "He's using his own money to buy the presidency!" -- and seem baffled over just who could support such an idiosyncratic, even mysterious, candidate.
Here's the answer: They are the unemployed and the employed. They are Democrats, Republicans and independents. But mostly, they are people who aren't looking for the same things in a candidate that conventional wisdom has been telling them to look for.
"Every single person wants to find out about his stand on the issues. I tell them the same thing I tell you: I don't know. I say, come November, do you want an alternative to Bush and Clinton? Then sign my petition," said Vernon Jones, a Snow Hill businessman and part of the Perot effort in Maryland that culminates withthe undeclared candidate's appearance in Annapolis today.
Mr. Perot will receive facsimiles of the roughly 150,000-signature petitions to put him on the ballot, collected by a disparate group of volunteers in a largely uncharted, seat-of-the-pants drive that many say is the first time in years that a political figure has engaged rather than dismayed them.
Running a campaign that they say is mostly independent both financially and strategically from the national Perot base in Texas, the volunteers in Maryland include renegade Democrats and Republicans alike, from an Annapolis woman whose last campaign was Robert F. Kennedy's Senate race to a Baltimore County couple who had moved to Washington to be among Richard M. Nixon's best and brightest only to become disenchanted during the Watergate years.
"We were fed up with politics," said Gloria Green, who with her husband, David, has devoted three phone lines, a fax and a copy machine in their Sparks home to the Perot campaign. "And then this article appears in The Sun [about Mr. Perot]. We thought,'Here's somebody who is really outside the system the same as we are.' "
The Greens, who describe themselves as "born and bred Republicans" from the Midwest, had been drawn to Washington by President Nixon's election and began taping sound bites of congressional Republicans for use by the national and hometown media. But then they and their duties were transferred to the Committee to Re-elect the President and confined to work that directly benefited Mr. Nixon, Mrs. Green said. They decided they'd had enough politics and got out.
Except for a local election or two, the Greens -- he now works as a consultant and she works with the estate of sports equipment magnate and philanthropist Howard Head -- were politically inactive until the Perot campaign began consuming much of their lives.
"It's so incredibly invigorating," Mrs. Green said. "People are personally turned on by Mr. Perot."
Pollsters have found that Mr. Perot is particularly popular among white, middle-class suburbanites. In Maryland, he's strong in Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, for example, and weaker in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, said Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research in Columbia.
"I guess what you see there is voters who are not happy with their party nominee. He draws from party members, but not loyal ones. It's not a very ideologically based group," Mr. Coker said.
It is indeed the man rather than the issues who fuels this campaign.
Dorie Kelley, who coordinates the volunteers in the Annapolis office, said she trains those who answer the phones not to discuss specific issues with callers but instead to ask if they'd like to watch a videotape of Mr. Perot or read some of his quotes.
"I've heard, 'How can you support someone when you don't know how he stands on the issues?' Well, I'm looking for a leader," said Jerry Benwell, a salesman who lives in Northeast Baltimore.
"He's a doer," said John Wiley, a Woodlawn man and one of a number of blacks who have joined what has been a majority white campaign to date.
A lifelong Democrat, Mr. Wiley was drawn into the Perot campaign after deciding that the independent could do what the two parties have not: Turn the economy around.
A thread that seems to run through Perot volunteers is a sense that the country is falling apart and neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are doing anything about it.
"We're in trouble. We've got problems in River City," states Hal Parker, who lives in Locust Point.
Like Mr. Perot, he is a former Navy man who went into the computer business and was based in Texas for awhile, where he recalls running into Mr. Perot once. He called the 800-number in Dallas to volunteer for the campaign, and now coordinates Baltimore's efforts from a tiny, donated office in Fells Point that is off Broadway at the end of a narrow, wooden walkway.
"You have to call me before you send me a fax because we only have one phone line," he says with a laugh about the decidedly spare campaign headquarters.
With the first phase of the non-campaign campaign -- getting signatures to put Mr. Perot on the Maryland ballot -- accomplished, the volunteers are ready for the second phase, expected to commence whenever Mr. Perot officially declares.
"We don't have any directives from Dallas," said Mr. Benwell. "It's been an all-volunteer effort, and we just do things that we believe should be done."