Ross Perot is the invisible man at the Democratic National Convention.
Wherever politicians huddle, there is talk about this wild card in the 1992 presidential race. With his campaign suddenly in disarray, the independent presidential candidate needs a strong vice presidential running mate more than ever. He is likely to make his own choice in his own way in his own time, provided legal deadlines are met in August.
This is in keeping with his imperious persona, which is now a source of weakness rather than strength as he confronts a political world far less disciplined than the business world he has known.
In the past month, Mr. Perot's approval ratings have dropped from the 30s into the 20s while Republican George Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton have held firm in the 30s. If this trend continues, the billionaire Texan could be reduced to an irrelevancy even before his ticket is fully formed.
Mr. Perot's problems first arose with a batch of unfavorable stories about his purported penchant for hiring investigators to probe the lives of adversaries and the tight control he exercises over underlings. Then came his disastrous appearance last weekend before the NAACP in Nashville, when he repeatedly offended his black audience by referring to them as "you people" and "your people."
Now the latest setback comes in reports Democrat Hamilton Jordan and Republican Edward Rollins, the respected handlers he hired to run his campaign, are frustrated and may not stay.
Mr. Perot often operates secretly and on his own, showing up on distant TV shows to the surprise of his top staff. Since he is also financing this campaign, he is tight and demanding about expenses, which may explain why he fired a Rollins advertising buddy and has resisted any publicity campaign to improve his image. Finally, there are tensions between volunteers in the field and professionals from his Dallas headquarters.
Given these pitfalls, the choice of a vice president candidate is crucial to the viability of the campaign. There is no dearth of names: Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker, former Planned Parenthood director Faye Wattleton, TV commentator Bill Moyers, Red Cross president Elizabeth Dole, Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, former Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, former astronaut Sally Ride, chairman of the joint chiefs Colin Powell, Radcliffe College president Linda Wilson -- the list goes on and on.
Such speculation has the advantage of intimating that Mr. Perot is wide open to a vast array of people without regard to race, gender, region and occupation. But it also shows how much he needs balance all over the political spectrum because his own political experience is so limited.
A widely admired running mate could give him inroads into Republican or Democratic voting blocs, perhaps both, and provide a lift of several percentage points in a close race.
Mr. Perot had better get his act and himself together, and soon, or risk a collapse of candidacy as spectacular as its meteoric rise.