Enough to Scramble the Deck? PEROT'S RE-ENTRY Texan Might Tip Balance in a Few Key States

October 04, 1992|By RONALD BROWNSTEIN | RONALD BROWNSTEIN,Washington Bureau of The Baltimore Sun

With his last minute return to the presidential race, Ross Perot could dramatically scramble the deck -- or merely play out a losing hand.

Advisers to both President Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton agree that the Texas billionaire has virtually no chance of recapturing anywhere near the breadth of support he commanded last summer when he led in several national surveys before he abruptly decided not to run.

But they disagree about how much he could change the dynamic of a race that has left Mr. Clinton holding a lead of nine to 12 percentage points over Mr. Bush in most polls since Labor Day.

"The question is how much does this start the race over again?" says Democratic consultant Brian Lunde. "And I just don't know the answer."

With Mr. Bush trailing -- and with economic news continuing to be gloomy -- Republicans hope Mr. Perot will create enough turbulence to cause voters to reconsider the entire contest. "We were just in a rut," said one senior White House official minutes after Mr. Perot's announcement. "The combination of Perot's emergence, plus the new discussion about debates, have thrown things in some flux and probably gives us a chance to ask voters to take a fresh look."

Clinton advisers insist there is no evidence that Mr. Perot is a big enough pebble to create such dramatic ripples in the presidential race. In Mr. Clinton's private polling this week, aides say, Mr. Perot's support actually dropped in many states as he moved toward his announcement.

A CNN-Gallup-USA Today poll completed Wednesday night showed Mr. Perot drawing just 7 percent of the vote, to Mr. Bush's 35 percent, and Mr. Clinton's 52 percent. Most national surveys completed last week had found Mr. Perot running in double digits.

"I don't think this is going to produce an upheaval," says Stanley B. Greenberg, Mr. Clinton's pollster. "I think it is going to be anti-climactic. It's not going to be as compelling a candidacy as it was, and it will fade like most third-party candidacies toward the end. The overall trend is downward."

Even before he left the race in July, Mr. Perot's support had been eroding, driven down by campaign missteps and allegations about his use of private investigators to collect information on business competitors, political rivals and even his own family members. Mr. Perot denied almost all such allegations, but he had fallen into third place by the time he left the contest.

Mr. Perot returned to the race to the resumption of that drumbeat. Earlier in the week, U.S. News & World Report reported that Mr. Perot once hired a private investigator to follow a Vanderbilt University English professor friendly with his daughter, Nancy Perot; Vanity Fair also aired those allegations this month.

Wednesday, several newspapers reported that Mr. Perot hired private investigators to look into some of his own volunteer coordinators. He also ran into a squall over reports that he complained that two female NBC reporters who had closely questioned him earlier this week were "trying to prove their manhood."

Such controversies -- and the disappointment that followed Mr. Perot's abrupt decision to abandon his campaign last July -- have taken a measureable toll on the billionaire's public image.

In the 11 weeks since he stepped aside, Mr. Perot's negative ratings with the public have reached dimensions that would send most politicians running for cover, not for president.

Depending on the survey, from half to two-thirds of the public now views Mr. Perot negatively -- double or even triple the number with a positive impression of him.

"In the focus groups I've done, people say we gave Mr. Perot a chance, and he wasn't tough enough," says Ed Sarpolus, a Democratic pollster in Lansing, Mich. "They've shut the door on him."

But if he has little chance of being elected himself, Mr. Perot could still influence the election in several ways, analysts say.

If the national race tightens, even a small vote for Mr. Perot could potentially shift the balance in tightly-contested states such as Michigan or Texas.

At the moment, polls do not show Mr. Perot running strongly enough to carry any state -- or even to tip any state from Mr. Clinton to Mr. Bush or vice versa. Polls completed last week in Michigan, for example, found Mr. Clinton leading Mr. Bush by 9 points whether or not Mr. Perot was in the race.

Similarly, a recent New Jersey survey found Mr. Clinton holding a point advantage over Mr. Bush in both a two-and three-way race. Even with Mr. Perot in, Mr. Clinton still holds wide leads in California and New York.

But in a number of other states, Mr. Perot somewhat narrows Mr. Clinton's advantage. Recent surveys show Mr. Perot more meaningfully tightening Mr. Clinton's advantage in such swing states as Colorado, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

Most observers believe Mr. Perot would also steepen the climb for Mr. Clinton in Ohio -- a state where the Democrat is currently drawing a large number of conservative, anti-Bush voters.

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