WASHINGTON -- From dawn to dark yesterday, undeclared presidential candidate Ross Perot struggled to get beyond the first major roadblock of his campaign and dispel the emerging portrait of him as Inspector Perot, a man with a penchant for sleuthing.
The daylong media blitz, intended to deal head-on with questions about his character at a time when voters are forming their impressions of the political maverick, began with a 40-minute segment on NBC's "Today" show, ended with an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live," and featured, in the middle, an hourlong news conference -- the first of his campaign, scheduled only the evening before -- televised on CNN after his campaign rally in Annapolis.
"I thought that we might as well just set the record straight," he said in Annapolis of his sudden accessibility to reporters and TV interviewers yesterday. "Now, the facts are, I do not spend my time investigating other people."
The latest national polls showing that Mr. Perot's negative ratings have doubled since late April have made it clear to the Perot camp that recent news stories describing his use of private investigators -- fanned this week by political opponents painting him as a scary authoritarian with little regard for civil liberties -- are having an effect on voters.
And in his appearances yesterday, Mr. Perot tried, not only to defend himself against charges of "running around with a Sherlock Holmes hat and magnifying glass," but to turn the tables on his political foes and position himself as a victim of the Republican "dirty tricks crowd" that is trying to create "a new personality that doesn't exist."
"Hitler's propaganda chief would be proud of what we're about to see," Mr. Perot said on "Today," as a preface to a tape of Vice President Dan Quayle's comments about him earlier this week.
In Annapolis later, he said the Bush-Quayle team was "swarming all over the country looking for anything. Their people are digging and searching, digging and searching, digging and searching -- a whole opposition research team."
Asked about Mr. Perot's charge that he was the victim of Republican "dirty tricks," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said, "Mr. Perot's paranoia knows no bounds."
But in yesterday's publicity bonanza, the Texas billionaire seemed to score points, especially in knocking down a story that he had investigated George Bush's children in 1986, as reported in a Washington Post article Sunday.
Earlier this week, President Bush responded with outrage to the article's charges about his fellow Texan, saying, "If the reports are true of investigating my children, my family, I don't think that's particularly American."
But yesterday, Mr. Perot denied any such investigation and said he was only passing on information he'd heard "father to father." To support his account, he produced a friendly letter then-Vice President Bush had written to him in December 1986, saying he was "very touched" by Mr. Perot's call(s) about his "kids."
"Talk about sizzling, smoking guns!" says Mark Siegel, former Democratic National Committee executive director. "I though Perot certainly got the best of George Bush.`
Even Frank Donatelli, a Republican consultant with close ties to the Bush campaign, suggested that if there's nothing more to the story, "the campaign probably ought to forget about it and move on."
As a sign of their growing fear of the unexpectedly powerful Perot appeal, Republicans have turned to their trump card -- their attacks on Mr. Perot's character -- early in the campaign and engaged the quasi-candidate in a full-scale battle.
Even Mr. Bush, after pledging he would not take on political opponents until after the Republican convention in August, took off the gloves with his personal attack this week.
For his part, Mr. Perot has made the Republicans the target of his counterattack, even though much of the image of Mr. Perot as super sleuth has emerged in recent news accounts.
He is pictured on the cover of this week's Time magazine, with half his face blacked out to accommodate the headline: "Nobody's Perfect, The Doubts About Ross Perot." Last Sunday's Washington Post, along with a reference to the Perot probe of Mr. Bush's sons, detailed more fully Mr. Perot's hiring of lawyers to investigate a considerable tax deduction on a piece of property received by one of Mr. Bush's former partners. The New Republic weighed in with a report that the Texas billionaire even had his own children trailed by private investigators.
Focus on "character" questions so stalled the campaign of Democrat Bill Clinton that he is still trying to recover from earlier setbacks and shift the headlines of his candidacy to issues such as the economy.
And while Mr. Perot may have pulled himself out of the fire for the moment, the Sherlock Holmes image may trail him as doggedly as Mr. Clinton's "Slick Willie" label.