Waiting for Perot

September 24, 1992

Ross Perot continues to be the wild card in the 199 presidential election. With his paperback manifesto a national best-seller, with his jug ears and squinty eyes as frequent a TV apparition as a Bud commercial, with economists serious enough about his caster-oil plan for the deficit to fuss at it, with what's left of his volunteer organization geared up for a will-he-or-won't-he decision on campaign re-entry, with George Bush and Bill Clinton downright skittish -- why it's enough to make a country billionaire feel important.

Make no mistake, H. Ross Perot is important to this race even though he no longer can win a single state and throw the decision into the House of Representatives. During the fallow period between his ignominious mid-summer withdrawal and his recent reappearance on the talk shows, one American voter in six continued to want him in the White House. That's not the one in three recorded when Mr. Perot was ahead of his big-party rivals in the opinion polls last spring. But it could be more than enough to tilt the November election result to either Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton.

In a three-way race, the political arithmetic becomes so complicated that Mr. Perot's own advisers don't know how it would shake out. He supposedly is very bad news for Mr. Bush in Texas, what with his being a real son of the Lone Star and the president a Connecticut import. But he also supposedly could turn the key on Mr. Clinton's seemingly unbreakable lock on California. The theory is that where a candidate is ahead, his share of potential switchers is greatest.

When you get away from arithmetic and focus on personalities, the portents become ominous for Mr. Bush. Simply put, Mr. Perot detests the president (a sentiment no doubt reciprocated). If at the last moment, after declaring his candidacy so he can buy TV ad time, Mr. Perot endorses Mr. Clinton, that could be quietus for the incumbent. John B. Connally, the former Texas governor who has metamorphosed from Democrat to Republican to Perotista, thinks this will happen. His candidate has been utterly dismissive of Mr. Bush's economic blueprint but only mildly scolding about Mr. Clinton's. It's too "general," he says by way of understatement. "It needs to be nailed down tight."

If Mr. Perot's ambiguities are to be taken literally and in the aggregate, it would seem that his main aim is more than resuscitation of his battered ego. It is to force the Republican and Democratic candidates to face up to the harsh steps needed to stop the runaway growth of the national debt.

If that is the case, we like the message even if we have grave reservations about the messenger. More and more Americans realize that the feel-good election-year promises of Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton stray far from the grim deficit realities the November victor will confront. To the extent that Mr. Perot can goad these candidates to level with the voters, his wild-card role in the 1992 election will be a trump -- not the joker it still threatens to be.

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