Sound and fury over Perot, debate may signify little

October 02, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The operative question about the 1992 presidential campaign is whether all the alarums and excursions of the past week mean anything.

The only certainty seems to be that the rules of combat have been settled. It is now a three-way campaign that will be played out for the next month largely, although not entirely, on the nation's television screens.

But it is by no means a different campaign from what it was a week ago. On the contrary, all the objective indicators -- meaning both the national opinion polls and those in the states -- show Democratic challenger Bill Clinton with a comfortable, although not unassailable, lead over President Bush in both popular support and electoral votes.

On the face of it, it has been a frenzied week. Just when the two candidates thought it was safe to go back into the water, Ross Perot resurfaced to claim what he seems to consider his rightful place in the campaign and on the television networks. Just when it appeared debates might be scuttled, Mr. Bush proposed not just three, but four, and serious negotiations began.

There has been enough running to and fro to leave the impression, at least, that the situation itself has been altered. William Hamilton, a respected Democratic poll-taker, said he was "just starting to feel comfortable" with Mr. Clinton's lead over Mr. Bush "because Bush lacked the credibility to come back."

"It's a little different right now," he said after Mr. Bush issued his debate challenge and Mr. Perot entered the lists, "but I still don't see where he gets the credibility to come back. . . . I'm not as certain as I was seven days ago, but I just don't see it happening."

It has been a week of small tactical triumphs and failures, beginning with Mr. Perot's success in forcing both the president and the Democratic nominee to send delegations of ranking campaign advisers to Dallas to play show-and-tell on the issues for the Texas billionaire and some of his "volunteers."

Mr. Bush's willingness to go along angered some Republican allies. David Keene, a conservative professional who managed Mr. Bush's campaign in 1980, called it "not only demeaning but disgusting" for the presidential candidates to accommodate Mr. Perot in that extraordinary way. John P. Sears, one-time campaign manager for Ronald Reagan, called it "sort of stupid" for the major candidates to kowtow to Mr. Perot.

Among professionals, there were some who believed Mr. Bush in particular had lost an opportunity by not rejecting Mr. Perot's demand -- their theory being that the president would have been credited with "standing up" to the billionaire, who has been so hostile to him that he is clearly beyond persuasion anyway.

But Mr. Bush "grabbed back the tactical offensive," in Mr. Keene's phrase, when suddenly -- after weeks of stalling and niggling about the format -- he called for four debates with Mr. Clinton in the final month, obviously catching the Democratic nominee by surprise. "Bush sort of outfoxed them for a 36-hour period," said Democratic consultant Harrison Hickman, "but Bush had to do something."

The following night, back on his game, Mr. Clinton was seen on the network news calling attention to Mr. Bush's scheduled appearance Sunday night on "The Larry King Show" on CNN and suggesting that this occasion be transformed into a debate. It was an offer easy for the Bush campaign to refuse -- and the last little thrust of game-playing before the serious negotiations on the debates were joined.

Although there was no significant change in the national and state poll figures, the prospect of debates and the active candidacy of Mr. Perot injected new variables into the picture.

In the past, third-party candidates have found their support dwindling in the final days of the campaign as voters worry about wasting their votes. Both former Gov. George C. Wallace in 1968 and Rep. John B. Anderson in 1980 were receiving more than 20 percent of the vote in polls taken early in their campaigns. But, despite strong support across the South, Mr. Wallace's vote dropped to under 13 percent on Election Day, although he won five states. And Mr. Anderson's vote came in at less than 7 percent, too little to carry any state.

Mr. Wallace did affect the outcome in 1968, however, by drawing enough blue-collar votes away from Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey to give Richard M. Nixon the electoral votes of both New Jersey and Illinois. So the central question about Mr. Perot's candidacy today is whether he might draw enough votes to cost Mr. Bush such states as Texas and Florida.

Mr. Perot's situation is somewhat different, of course, because he has the money for a saturation television advertising campaign over the final month, as well as the prospect of a place in the debates. But his on-again, off-again, on-again history has earned him negatives two or three times his positives, usually an indicator of a political terminal case.

The debate schedule is considered potentially important, first, because of the possibility one or the other candidate could make the kind of gaffe that would cost him heavily among undecided voters and, second, because the debates tend to dominate any campaign.

"The debates create sign posts for people," Mr. Hickman said. "They tell them they don't have to make a decision until the debates are over."

At the moment, nonetheless, the fundamentals of the campaign are so static that all the sound and fury of the week may have

signified nothing.

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