ANNAPOLIS -- Ross Perot may or may not be the investigative snoop that the Bush-Quayle campaign is making him out to be. But he didn't have to hire a detective to figure out what the president and his political strategists are up to in so characterizing him.
It was just a matter of time for the Bush-Quayle masterminds to hit upon the appropriate weapon with which to try to cut Perot down to size. The boys who gave the country Willie Horton as a fear symbol in the 1988 campaign have quickly latched onto reports of excessive Perot investigatory zeal aimed at President Bush and others to strike fear of Perot in the minds and hearts of voters.
The tactic is an old one and not by any means the exclusive property of the Republicans. In 1964, the Democratic operatives of President Lyndon B. Johnson sought to scare the pants off the country with the famous "daisy commercial" on television, suggesting that Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater would blow up the world if he ever got elected.
Goldwater's reputation as a "mad bomber" -- he was an Air Force reserve general and pilot with a combative posture on dealing with the dreaded communists -- made him an easy target. The Democratic ad showed a little girl picking petals from a daisy until the mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb lighted up the screen. Goodbye, Goldwater (although he was probably gone anyway).
Fear also played a role in the 1980 campaign, when the Reagan campaign set up a watch of certain U.S. military installations for any signs of materiel moving to Iran to break the hostage impasse in the final days of that campaign. Reagan campaign manager William Casey openly expressed fear of an "October Surprise" -- a deal to spring the hostages that could salvage the election for Jimmy Carter. It didn't.
The fear tactic has taken on various forms since then, and not always successfully. In 1984, the Democrats painted Ronald Reagan as an old man who had lost his marbles -- a view that seemed to some to be confirmed in a listless, wandering first debate against Democratic nominee Walter Mondale. But Reagan recovered and won handily, even as the Republicans used Mondale's impolitic declaration that he would raise some taxes to strike fear in voters' hearts about that prospect.
Whether the Bush campaign can make fear of Perot's alleged investigatory and authoritarian tendencies stick will depend on how voters react to Perot's irate denials, repeated here after another ballot petition rally, and whether further revelations establish a pattern of Perot as a vengeful snooper. But at last Perot has been put on the defensive after months of getting a free ride and simply brushing aside questions about himself.
It is always risky in politics to attack an opponent through his family, as a Washington Post story suggested Perot had done in investigating Bush's sons. The president put on an impressive performance as the injured father biting his tongue rather than lashing out at Perot.
After all the criticism Bush took for using the Willie Horton prison furlough episode to stir racial fears in the 1988 campaign, he has been understandably guarded about running a negative campaign again. But the opportunity to paint Perot as an insensitive zealot who hired private eyes to snoop on his "kids" obviously was too tempting to pass up.
The success or failure of the fear tactic often comes down to whether the voters are more scared by the prospect of the opponent's becoming president. In 1960, the Republicans tried to convince voters that John F. Kennedy was too young to be trusted with the country in the nuclear age, and some raised the specter of the pope ruling through the first Catholic in the White House. The Democrats responded by asking the voters about Richard Nixon: "Would you buy a used car from this man?"
Right now, it appears that many voters might buy an Edsel from super-salesman Ross Perot if he told them it would outperform a Mercedes. But some polls indicate confidence in him is slipping. Overcoming the fear factor is his first real challenge.