NEW YORK -- Fueling reports that the independent presidential candidacy of Ross Perot is beginning to wither, co-manager Edward J. Rollins resigned from the campaign yesterday, citing differences with the feisty Texas billionaire on "overall strategy and tactics."
The resignation comes only 45 days after the veteran Republican strategist, who managed Ronald Reagan's sweeping re-election campaign in 1984, broke ranks with his party and joined the fledgling Perot campaign with Democratic strategist Hamilton Jordan. At the time, the still undeclared presidential candidate was soaring in the polls. He has since stumbled amid reports that he refuses to take advice from the seasoned strategists he hired.
"Mr. Perot and I see two different ways of getting to the presidency," Mr. Rollins said at a news conference at Perot headquarters in Dallas yesterday. He added that if he had continued to work with Mr. Perot, "the conflict would have gotten more severe."
Last night, Perot headquarters also announced that Mr. Perot is canceling plans to go to Minnesota and Virginia this week to accept petitions. No reason was given for the cancellation.
The hiring of Mr. Rollins and Mr. Jordan, who managed former President Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign, infused the volunteer-driven, grass-roots campaign with a hefty measure of credibility, legitimacy and expertise.
Yesterday's shake-up, which comes amid reports of dissension and turmoil inside the Perot campaign as well as a recent drop in polls, raises questions about the viability of what once looked like an unstoppable, and unprecedented, third-party candidacy. In the past six weeks, Mr. Perot has dropped from first place to third in a race against President Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton. And in the past week, Mr. Perot has lost one-third of his support, according to a recent ABC-Washington Post poll.
Mr. Perot, who has offered himself to the American people as an agent of change, has said he will officially enter the race only after he succeeds in gaining a place on ballots in all 50 states. So far, he has qualified on 24.
Perot campaign chief Tom Luce, who appeared with Mr. Rollins at yesterday's news conference, played down the defection, saying he didn't believe that the activities of July would have any bearing on the election in November.
Just before the resignation, Reuters reported that senior aides had told Mr. Perot he must declare himself a candidate within XTC two weeks or face the collapse of his independent bid for the presidency.
Mr. Luce said he was unaware of any such discussion. Asked whether Mr. Perot had any thoughts of abandoning his presidential pursuitin light of his drop in the polls, Mr. Luce said, "I don't think Mr. Perot's plans have changed one iota. I think he's still planning to run for president of the United States."
The defection of Mr. Rollins -- whose wife, Sherrie, left a high-ranking White House position when her husband went to work for Mr. Perot -- was especially surprising because recent rumors have focused on Mr. Jordan's frustration with the campaign and the possibility that he would quit. A Perot campaign official confirmed that the Democratic strategist had been having some troubles of his own with Mr. Perot but was not planning to resign. Mr. Luce said Mr. Jordan would assume the title of campaign manager.
This official described the Perot-Rollins clash as "a question of somebody [who is] his own candidate and somebody who's used to having a malleable candidate."
Just last week, Mr. Perot rejected an elaborate ad campaign by )) Hal Riney, the adman credited with Mr. Reagan's "Morning in America" spot in 1984.
The Riney dismissal was "a big part" of the conflict that led to yesterday's resignation, the campaign aide said. "It was embarrassing."
Mr. Rollins also was said to be upset by the fact that none of the Perot advisers saw an advance copy of the speech Mr. Perot gave last weekend at the NAACP national convention in Nashville, Tenn. The Texan offended many in his audience by referring to them as "you people."
The resignation was announced only hours before Mr. Clinton was nominated as his party's presidential candidate, and it rocked the otherwise sedate Democratic convention.
Asked if he expected Mr. Perot to continue in his bid for the White House, Mr. Clinton said, "He has a lot of supporters, a lot of good feeling out there for him. He's tapped into a mother lode of resentment against the political system, so I assume he will run."
But party leaders were less generous in their assessments of Mr. Perot's enduring support. John Marino, New York state's Democratic Party chairman, said, "It is the first nail in the Perot coffin."
GOP National Committee Chairman Richard N. Bond said, "My educated guess is that Ross Perot ultimately will not seek the presidency in 1992."