WASHINGTON -- Ross Perot's new threat to revive his candidacy has sent tremors of apprehension through the campaigns of both President Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton. The question of who might suffer more is a complex one that goes beyond the opinion polls.
The conventional wisdom among political professionals is that Mr. Bush has the most to lose from a Perot candidacy because of the possibility an independent campaign could cost the president the 32 electoral votes from Texas, which he must have to win Nov. 3, and perhaps those of several other states where he is running even or only slightly ahead.
Polling data support that thesis. The most recent published poll inTexas has the race dead even. Although a private poll found Mr. Bush with a 6-percentage-point lead late last week, that is not enough to sustain any significant defection to Mr. Perot.
There is a potential down side for Mr. Clinton as well. There is a possibility that a Perot candidacy, fueled by heavy spending on television, could change the shape of a campaign the Democrat appears to be winning. As Peter Hart, a longtime Democratic pollster, put it, "I don't think you want to the change the dynamic when it's working in your favor."
Up to this point, the Democratic challenger has established himself as the favorite by concentrating his energy and rhetoric bTC essentially on a single line of argument for "change" -- that the economy is in parlous condition and that the president is to blame. But the nature of the debate could be vastly different -- more focused on the national budget deficit, for example -- if Mr. Perot became a visible third party, even if not a serious contender for the presidency.
Opinion polls over the weekend indicated that Mr. Clinton would suffer a loss of popular support if Mr. Perot enters the field. The Time-CNN poll, for example, showed Mr. Clinton leading Mr. Bush by 12 percent in a two-way race, 11 in a three-way contest. Newsweek had the two-way margin at 10, the three-way at 9, a CBS News poll made it 12 and 9, and a Washington Post-ABC survey 9 and 5.
The difference is that Mr. Clinton has enough of a lead in critical states such as California (54 electoral votes), New York (33) and Pennsylvania (23) that he could more easily absorb the loss. But pollsters generally have found Mr. Perot taking more from the president than his Democratic rival in states that are essential to Mr. Bush and that have large populations of white suburban voters to whom Mr. Perot has had the greatest appeal.
In Connecticut, for example, the most recent public poll showed Mr. Clinton leading 53 to 35 percent in a two-way race and 46 to 22 in a three-way race with another 22 percent for Mr. Perot.
Some professionals believe there could be advantages for Mr. Clinton in a Perot candidacy. John P. Sears, a Republican lawyer active in presidential politics as far back as Richard M. Nixon's campaign of 1968, said Mr. Perot could be a diversion that would essentially freeze the situation for a while.
"If you're ahead and it takes attention away from your real opponent for a week or two, it helps you," Mr. Sears said.
There is also the chance that Mr. Clinton could end up in a debate with Mr. Perot that could work to his advantage simply by giving the Arkansas governor a national audience before which he could demonstrate his competence.
In 1980, a two-way debate between Republican Ronald Reagan and independent John B. Anderson worked that way. Although Mr. Anderson more than held his own in the debate, Mr. Reagan's stock in the polls rose sharply as more voters decided he was not too great a risk for the White House after all.
The calculations over the Perot potential are somewhat colored by two factors.
The first is the widespread conviction in the political community that Mr. Perot's potential support is being overstated by the polls that show him with 15 percent of the vote or more. The history of the Anderson campaign, as well as that of George C. Wallace in 1968, shows that as voters recognize they will be wasting their votes on a certain loser, they tend to move to one of the serious contenders in the final days.
The second variable in the equation is Mr. Perot's history of running a de facto candidacy for several months, then abruptly withdrawing in July. One result is that he now is viewed unfavorably by almost half the electorate, three times the negatives he carried last summer.
That means he may have less ability to influence the race than polls and press attention suggests.