ANNAPOLIS -- Billionaire Ross Perot accepted the adulation of Marylanders who want him in the White House yesterday and then waded into an hourlong joust with a challenging national press corps.
Anxious to refute allegations that he had investigated everyone from President Bush's children to his own, Mr. Perot submitted to one of his first major encounters with reporters and seemed to enjoy it.
Asked if charges leveled at him so far during his undeclared candidacy prompted any second thoughts about running, Mr. Perot scoffed.
"This is Mickey Mouse tossed salad," he said. "This isn't tough."
His volunteer support team welcomed him with an artful amalgam of old-fashioned political rally and homecoming. The carefully staged event featured a brass band, a multitude of clever placards, a one-plane fly-over and a 24-boat flotilla.
The boats, one for every county and Baltimore, carried copies of the petitions collected to get Mr. Perot on Maryland's election ballot. A T-shirt, duplicated on one of the boats said, "Harford County Says: Cut the Loss . . . Vote For Ross . . . For Boss."
"Everywhere I go," he told a throng at the Annapolis City Dock, "there are people like you with stars in their eyes who are thrilled about taking their country back -- who are tired of talk and who want action."
Standing on the deck of a boat and facing the campus of his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, Mr. Perot shook hands with an Uncle Sam look-alike, listened to a campaign song written in his honor and heard himself praised as a man who can guarantee America's future.
Given more to plain-speaking than stem-winding as a speaker, he brought praise of his own for those who collected signatures from about 150,000 Marylanders, well over the 63,000 needed. The process of certifying the signatures has already begun.
"You, the American people, have permanently changed American politics," he declared. "You've tapped Washington on the shoulder and said, 'Hey, fellas, wait a minute.' "
At a news conference in the Lowes Annapolis Hotel, he declared himself the victim of a "massive and false assault" -- by the Bush White House and by the media -- to redefine his personality and turn him into what one reporter called "a super snooper."
Exhibit No. 1 in his defense was a letter, written by President Bush on Dec. 24, 1986. Mr. Bush said then that he was "touched" by Mr. Perot's calls alerting him to reports then circulating of questionable activities by Mr. Bush's sons.
"These troubled times will pass but caring friends make it easier," the then-vice president wrote.
The undeclared candidate who has been criticized for refusing to offer detailed positions on the issues of this campaign also offered these observations:
* On sexual harassment: Referring to an incident at the NavalAcademy several years ago and by Navy pilots during a 1991 convention in Las Vegas, Mr. Perot said both were "absolutely inexcusable."
Asked if he thought women should have been admitted to the academy, he offered no personal opinion, saying only that the law required their admission.
* On civil rights: "Racial division" is an obstacle to progress. The ideal America needs no laws to compensate for prejudice and discrimination. And affirmative action can create stress in organizations. If a "less-talented person" is promoted over someone else, stress results.
Nevertheless, such measures may be necessary until the ideal of "personal good will" is more fully realized.
* On the export of jobs and industry: "If we can't make things in this country, we can't defend ourselves." His first goal as president, he said, would be to stabilize the job base and then expand it.
* On life in Washington: Government in the United States is organized as if the Cold War were still under way. No one gets action.
Police estimated that 4,000 people attended the rally. The Perot campaign said it counted 8,000. Others thought both figures were high.
Nor was everyone in the crowd a Perot backer. Cheryl Kagan, a supporter of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, said she had come out of curiosity and was reassured to find a smaller crowd than she expected.
But supporters of Mr. Perot appeared confident that he would succeed where so many other political leaders had failed. Many politicians are well-intentioned, but something happens to them once they're elected, said Peter J. LaMonica, 70, a retired Navy medic from Elkton.
"I don't know if they're bought or what," he said. "Whatever happens to [the politicians] I don't know, but I don't think it would happen to Ross Perot."