'Is-he-or-isn't-he?' query again applies to Perot ON POLITICS

Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

September 17, 1992|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

LOS ANGELES -- What, it seems reasonable to ask at thi stage, is Ross Perot up to?

Two months after he dropped his undeclared presidential candidacy, his diehard supporters -- with half a million dollars a month from him -- are on the verge of completing the task of filing his name for ballot position in all 50 states.

The last one, Hawaii, is expected to have completed its petition drive by the end of this week. Perot supporters here say this will be the first time any independent candidacy for the presidency has accomplished that feat, surpassing former Alabama Gov. George Wallace in his third-party efforts.

Bob Hayden, head of the Perot petition drive in California, says the successor grass-roots movement that calls itself "United We Stand America" now has 64 offices operating around the country, including 16 here in the Golden State.

Its purpose, says Orson Swindle, a Hawaii volunteer who has moved to Dallas to direct the movement as a paid operative, is to hold the Perot support together not for his candidacy but to pressure President Bush, Gov. Bill Clinton and all House and Senate candidates to adopt Perot's agenda, which features deficit reduction and campaign reform.

But the continuation of the petition drive long after Perot quit the race, and with his financial support to boot, raises eyebrows. His original pledge was that if voters succeeded in placing him on the ballot in all 50 states, he would run for president and "give them a world-class campaign." He is about to have that condition met, albeit after he has withdrawn.

Swindle acknowledges that Perot's abrupt pullout in mid-July cost him considerable support, but many voters around the country who saw him as a political savior have refused to quit. The fact that enough voters have been recruited to complete the ballot process in all 50 states encourages Swindle to hope that Perot may yet be persuaded to run.

Hayden and Swindle both say the movement is no longer purely a Perot vehicle, but they pose the possibility that if Bush and Clinton don't stop squabbling over personal matters, they may have to ask Perot to get back in. Hayden cites a recent Perot

interview on C-SPAN in which he said: "Let's try to get the two parties to step up to the plate. If they don't, we'll do what we have to do." And Perot himself said on ABC News the other day that "I don't want to have to run."

Swindle says: "I'm less optimistic that we can transform the two parties to do what's right. If not, we'll have to go back and say, 'We tried, Ross. Let's run.'" As of now, though, Swindle says, there is no real evidence that Perot is ready to get back in.

When Perot pulled the rug out from his own candidacy, operatives for both Bush and Clinton rushed to recruit the Texan's enthusiastic supporters. But since then, Hayden says, the two presidential candidates themselves have given the Perot-backed movement short shrift.

Last Sunday in San Jose, about 600 Perot backers gathered for a candidates' forum to which both Bush and Clinton were invited but neither showed up, although Clinton did send a spokesperson. The president's absence particularly grated on the organizers when they learned that he was in the state attending a brunch at the Burbank home of comedian Bob Hope and an Orange County rally with former President Ronald Reagan.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, state chairman of the Bush-Quayle re-election committee, accepted an invitation, Hayden says, but at the last minute canceled out because "he said he had to go see President Bush." This attitude, he says, is discouraging because instead of addressing the tough issues, candidates "are still having parties at Bob Hope's house."

An indication of Perot's continued support in California is the latest Los Angeles Times poll giving him 17 percent of the vote here to 49 percent for Clinton and 28 percent for Bush. Right now the movement is pushing Perot's paperback book of the same name and calling on candidates to give answers to issues raised in it, rather than mounting an effort to turn out a large vote for him on Election Day. That would change, however, if Perot were to decide to run after all.

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