Perot's high road takes detour into combat zone Pep rallies give way to political shootouts

June 28, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Ross Perot mounted a saturation bombing of the air waves last week in an attempt to defend his character. He engaged in heavy combat with political opponents, invoking every name from Mickey Mouse to Hitler in characterizing their tactics. All the while, bitter squabbles, "coups" and even lawsuits have plagued the once-cheery, peppy, volunteer-filled petition offices raking in signatures across the country.

Welcome aboard, Ross.

Political reality has finally settled in for the all-but-declared presidential candidate.

Since launching his independent, and still unofficial, bid for the nation's top job, the Texas computer tycoon has been buoyed to the front of the news and the polls by the hopes of a disgruntled electorate and the promise that, as a phenomenally successful businessman, this plain-talking Texan knew how to get things done.

Through the spring, Mr. Perot's appeal soared -- even as he offered up principles in lieu of positions, pep rallies instead of press conferences.

But now, as the Perot momentum has leveled off, as the public is taking a closer look at the feisty billionaire and as he's forced to address biting attacks from political opponents and questionable episodes of his past -- most notably that he's prone to hiring private investigators to dig up dirt on adversaries -- he's entered the combat zone of presidential politics.

"Basically, this is a second primary season," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. "We're engaged in a contest to define 'Who is Ross Perot?' that would have taken place in New Hampshire. We're now about at Super Tuesday in relative time."

Last week, Mr. Perot reacted angrily to news reports of his sleuthing activities, including a Washington Post article detailing his attempts to investigate George Bush in 1986, and blamed them on the Republican Party's opposition research team -- "generally known as the dirty tricks crowd," he said. He refused to offer any evidence, however, that these stories had their roots in the GOP.

"He has to be shocked to be no longer seen as just a good guy," said James Lake, deputy campaign manager for George Bush. "All he's ever had in his life have been accolades: 'Young man makes good, really good! Hero, hero.' Now he's getting the kind of scrutiny that is required for a presidential candidate -- the same as Bill Clinton has gotten, the same as George Bush has gotten, and what he ought to have. And his only retort is that this is a conspiracy."

The public saw Mr. Perot, perhaps for the first time, testy and evasive while on the defensive, gloating and indignant on the offensive.

Yesterday, Mr. Perot celebrated his 62nd birthday in Dallas by phoning supporters in several states and cutting a birthday cake shaped like the White House. He stayed out of the news media limelight.

Political media consultant Michael Sheehan says Mr. Perot's reaction to recent attacks has been typical of those stepping into a bigger ring than they're used to -- mayors running for statewide office, for instance, or businessmen venturing into politics.

"The first reaction is bafflement: 'This worked before; why isn't it working now?' " Mr. Sheehan said. "The second is anger:'Why are people out to harm me?' The third is a little puppy dog hurt. Then, they either brush themselves off, or they end up in a downward spiral.

"We're seeing the anger flash right now."

In fact, Mr. Perot's attempts to take the high road and avoid negative campaigning, as he vowed early on when promising a "world class campaign," have all but vanished. His public sparring with George Bush and company last week resulted in not only politics as usual, but much more heated, aggressive warfare than campaigns usually indulge in this early.

Such an all-out battle at this stage of the game suggests how severe a threat Republicans perceive Mr. Perot to be.

Beyond that, analysts believe Mr. Perot's opponents have decided to trumpet, early on, the notion that the political maverick is a scary, paranoid authoritarian with, as Vice President Dan Quayle said, "a compulsion to investigate people."

Each camp knows, after all, that the election is likely to turn on the character and trustworthiness of the candidates.

Mr. Perot's top aides, such as Republican Edward J. Rollins and Democrat Hamilton Jordan, have been forced to devise quickly a battle plan to counter the attacks -- much earlier than anyone expected. At the same time, they're grappling with questions of news media and organizational strategy, policy positions, a running mate and a quasi-convention for their unconventional candidate.

But even internally, shots are being fired, as Mr. Perot's once all-volunteer army of zealous, political first-timers has been recently augmented with 75 paid professionals. Some of those new employees have been sent out to help coordinate state efforts.

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