NEW YORK -- Ross Perot, who ended his brief war against politics-as-usual yesterday, has left the battlefield declaring victory but leaving his stunned voluntary army in dismay and anger and his own reputation as a fearless Mr. Fix-it in tatters.
Mr. Perot, in a dramatic Dallas press conference on the day Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination, tried to put a positive spin on his decision to cut and not run, claiming that his supporters had succeeded in arousing the country and the two major parties to address their demands for )) change in Washington.
Because "both political parties have now squarely focused on the issues that concern the American people," Mr. Perot said, he was throwing in the towel rather than being "disruptive to the country" by forcing the election into the House of Representatives.
Mr. Perot declared that he had concluded his continued candidacy would produce that result, and that with the House "made up primarily of Democrats and Republicans, our chances of winning would be pretty slim."
The Texas billionaire's rationale for folding his tent was replete with similar justifications, including his conclusion that "the Democratic Party has revitalized itself" and thus that it would have forced a three-man race into the House by making it impossible for anyone to win a clear majority in the Electoral College.
Mr. Perot made no similar observation about the Republican Party and said it "wouldn't be appropriate" for him to endorse either Mr. Clinton or President Bush. Nevertheless, he pointedly argued that a divided government -- the White House in the hands of one party, Congress in those of the other -- was the cause of Washington's gridlock and that it wouldn't end until one party controlled both.
That argument is a centerpiece of the Clinton campaign.
Both Mr. Clinton and President Bush quickly moved to court the army of Perot volunteers. Mr. Perot's decision, the Arkansas governor said after phoning him, "in no way minimizes the remarkable effect that he and his supporters have had on this country. I invite them to join us in our efforts to change our country and give government back to the people."
The president, vacationing in Wyoming, broke off temporarily to say that "a lot of people that supported Ross want to see the kinds of changes that I want to see." He said, "We want their support . . . and welcome them warmly into our campaign." And he told reporters he was convinced "they will end up with me."
These observations came amid much speculation about which of them will be helped or hurt more by the Texas businessman's bombshell decision. There was also widespread skepticism about Mr. Perot's explanation, and some insiders in Dallas suggested that after the easy ride he enjoyed during the petition drive to place him on the ballot in 50 states, this private, proud businessman wilted under the attacks on his personal and business integrity and ethics.
Morton Meyerson, Mr. Perot's closest business associate and a key campaign adviser, told reporters that Mr. Perot hadn't "quite realized the tension and the pulling and tugging and extraneous ideas that come out [about] the presidential candidates. . . . I think he thought it would be on a slightly higher plane than it was. . . . I think he thought they were going to talk about ideas and some personal things . . . when it turned out to be more personal things than ideas."
Hamilton Jordan, named as the sole campaign manager only two days ago when Republican strategist Edward J. Rollins quit the campaign, said, "Ed's departure was totally unrelated" to Mr. Perot's decision, but it was known that the Texan's rejection of Mr. Rollins' advice to begin television ads produced by a professional he had recruited played a part in Mr. Rollins' departure.
Mr. Jordan also denied that Mr. Perot was "hardheaded and thin-skinned," as often charged, or that any such attitudes had led to his decision to quit the race.
The decision hit Perot volunteers around the country like a thunderbolt, with some saying that they still intended to support and vote for him, and others angrily deploring his precipitous withdrawal. Switchboards at Perot headquarters in Dallas were reported to be flooded with calls reflecting both points of view, and Perot officials told Associated Press that bus loads of Perot faithful were heading for Dallas to try to convince their hero to chance his mind.
But Vivian Doak of New Mexico, a rare Perot delegate to the Democratic National Convention winding up here last night, told Cable News Network that she felt "totally let down" and "betrayed" by him. As she spoke, she removed a Perot campaign button from her lapel and replaced it with a Clinton-Gore button, declaring she would now back the Democratic ticket.
Private organizations active in politics took note of Mr. Perot's ability to highlight public disenchantment with the process, without necessarily praising him.