DALLAS -- "I think he'll roll out the way he'd solve these problems, and that's the way he'll control the agenda again."
This was Thomas Luce, chairman of Ross Perot's undeclared campaign for the presidency, talking about the current central -- question of the 1992 campaign: Which candidate determines the terms of the political debate and, not incidentally, the focus of the news media over the rest of the summer?
Until the last two weeks,there was no question it was the independent from Texas. Mr. Perot was the one who took the lead in using "free media" -- from the "Larry King Live" program on the Cable News Network to the "Today" show on NBC -- to make his case that the political system is broken and needs to be fixed. "He's been setting the agenda until the last half-month," said Mr. Luce.
But that was before Mr. Perot was thrown on the defensive by stories that he had used investigators to look into, among other ++ things, the lives of President Bush's children. Mr. Perot countered with his charges of "Republican dirty tricks." The issue was joined when Mr. Bush himself displayed his distaste for surveillance tactics, and a corps of Bush surrogates -- Vice President Dan Quayle, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, Republican National Chairman Richard N. Bond and even drug czar Bob Martinez -- began heaping abuse on Mr. Perot.
Now the Texas billionaire plans to seize the offensive again with a series of events, beginning perhaps as early as next week, to define his positions on such issues as the deficit, the economy, health care and education. Whether that approach will succeed is an open question, but there is no doubt that all three presidential candidates recognize the priority is controlling the agenda for the campaign as early as possible.
Mr. Bush clearly understands the value of being the one who chooses the topics for debate. Four years ago he was lagging behind Democrat Michael S. Dukakis until he succeeded in turning the attention of the press and the electorate to such issues as the death penalty, prison furloughs for inmates like Willie Horton and whether the Pledge of Allegiance should be required in classrooms.
But even with the bully pulpit of the White House at his disposal, Mr. Bush has not been able to seize the offensive this year. Instead, he has been forced to recycle previous positions in an attempt to portray himself as a candidate with solutions to domestic problems, as he did last week in putting forward his "GI Bill for children" and two weeks earlier by pressing for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas has taken political initiatives of his own -- rebuffing the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson on rap singer Sister Souljah and outlining a blueprint for the economy -- that were designed for the same purpose. But because he has kept himself out of the main-event debate over Mr. Perot, the Democrat has remained a sideshow attraction who apparently was not being watched closely by the electorate.
As a veteran Democratic poll-taker put it, "Bill Clinton is a flat-liner right now."
Mr. Clinton can expect some improvement in his position when the Democratic convention opens in New York in two weeks and, perhaps before then, when he chooses his running mate. But his immediate problem is an image of irrelevance that develops from polls showing him with only about 25 percent of the vote and clearly trailing both Mr. Perot and Mr. Bush.
The effect of the "dirty tricks"brouhaha is not yet clear, although some polls have shown Mr. Perot's negatives inching upward and his support stalling. But the Texan's managers are convinced that the controversy over his personal history is the kind of thing voters are rejecting in this year of very different
"I think the Perot phenomenon has been created by this kind of atmosphere," Mr. Luce says. "People get irritated by this kind of thing."
Others agree that there is a higher-than-usual interest in more basic issues. Here in Texas, for example, the Bush campaign chairman, James Oberwetter, says he believes there has been "an impact" on Mr. Perot from the controversy. But he also says that the voters are most interested in where the candidates stand on such issues as energy policy and the future of the supercollider, whose funding is now in doubt.
And Kirk Adams, one of the professionals directing the Clinton campaign, says he is less concerned with whether the Arkansan's draft history will be used against him. "These issues are less important this year," he says. "People are worried about their futures."
The pressure on Mr. Perot to spell out solutions to problems has been growing as his general complaints have become more familiar. But Perot strategists recognize that the answer is not another 10-point program for every national concern.