WASHINGTON -- President Bush, whose re-election campaign heaved a great sigh of relief yesterday at the sudden departure from the race of independent Ross Perot, quickly reached out to draw Perot supporters to his cause.
Although he was on a fishing trip in remote Wyoming, the president moved faster than Democratic nominee Bill Clinton to extend his best wishes to Mr. Perot and offer a personal entreaty to the thousands of Perot volunteers that they "should feel at home with us."
"I think a lot of the people who support Ross" share the president's conservative views, Mr. Bush told a pool of reporters and camera crews summoned to a weather station in Pinedale, Ariz., about 20 minutes from his mountain retreat. "I see this as a positive development."
But Mr. Bush hinted for the first time that he might ask Secretary of State James A. Baker III, his longtime political adviser, to take over his troubled re-election effort.
"Who knows?" the president said, when asked about the prospects for a Baker move that has been eagerly sought by many Republican strategists. "I don't know."
He said that Mr. Baker, with whom he had gone to Wyoming for two days of privacy during the Democratic National Convention, will be off on a diplomatic mission to Israel next week. So far, the subject of Mr. Baker's possible political activity later in the summer "has not come up," Mr. Bush said.
As part of his outreach to Perot supporters, Mr. Bush abandoned the tough language his campaign had been firing at the billionaire businessman. Vice President Dan Quayle had labeled Mr. Perot a "temperamental tycoon" who would try to run the country like a dictator. Other Bush officials pronounced a Perot presidency "scary."
But Mr. Bush said he had called Mr. Perot yesterday to congratulate him "on the excitement that he brought to the race and particularly the way he energized the volunteers. . . . I told him I understood how difficult a decision it must have been."
Bush campaign officials anticipated that Mr. Clinton might be the immediate beneficiary of the Perot departure because of the excitement surrounding his formal nomination at the convention this week.
But in the long run, they expect Mr. Bush to gain far more because Mr. Perot had been drawing from the president's conservative base, especially in critical states such as Texas, California and Florida.
"We're very happy," said Charles Black, a senior adviser to the Bush campaign. "We're in very comfortable surroundings now."
Bush officials acknowledge that Mr. Perot's appeal was not ideological and that it mostly represented a frustration with the stagnant economy and the president's failure to revive it. But now, they say, it will be easier to draw an ideological distinction between the president and Mr. Clinton on the economy as well as other issues.
"It makes it a much clearer choice," said B. Jay Cooper, communications director for the Republican National Committee. "I think our chances improve when you can have a classic liberal-conservative contest."
Committee Chairman Richard N. Bond said he sent faxes to GOP leaders nationwide instructing them to quickly contact Perot forces in an effort to bring them into the Bush fold.