In this Ohio valley, Perot's more than a blip

Sandy Grady

October 14, 1992|By Sandy Grady

Girard, Ohio -- TOUGH guy, Bill Waldkirch. Big, gnarled hands. A face that's seen trouble. He raced sprint, stock and sports cars for 30 years until a tree, which he hit at 100-plus mph, retired him.

Now he's hell-bent on patching up the wrecked candidacy of Ross Perot.

"Perot's going to shock everybody again," says Mr. Waldkirch, 66. "There's something happening out here the big-city media is missing."

One thing you can't miss in Girard, a small town in Ohio's hard-hit Mahoning Valley, is Mr. Perot's storefront headquarters. It's a Perot shrine -- buttons, photos, ball caps, walls plastered with Perot news clips. A red-white-and-blue sign across the window brags, "Second Perot HQ Opened in USA!"

Mr. Waldkirch bought most of this Perot kitsch (no help from Dallas). He kept paying the rent after Mr. Perot's "Black Thursday" exit on the premise: If We Stay Open, He Will Come Back.

"The day he quit, people were crying," said Mr. Waldkirch. "I told 'em to hang tough, Ross is crazy like a fox. When Ross got back in the race, 37 people walked in to sign up as volunteers. People are going nuts trying to get his book. I tell ya, something strange is happening."

Is this diehard daffiness? Though he got an expected surge after Sunday's bravado performance in the first presidential debates, Mr. Perot's still not taken seriously. Millions defected after he quit the race.

But after two days of interviews with Ohio voters, political pros and labor leaders, you get vibrations that the Perot Phenomenon is far from dead. Ross' re-run is a ticking bomb that could create havoc in Ohio, where Bill Clinton and George Bush are mano a mano in the hardest-fought industrial state.

Sure, you pick up the usual contempt and anti-Perot sarcasm.

"I wouldn't give the time of day to that Napoleonic pipsqueak," said Lou Devlin, 83, a retired Youngstown steelworker.

"He's a disgusting showboat."

But you also encounter a surprising number of people, especially undecided Ohio Democrats, willing to give Mr. Perot a second hearing.

"I'm open-minded about listening to Perot," said Marie Dobson, a first-time voter. "The economy's so terrible in the Valley, maybe Perot's the answer."

"I would have voted for him if Perot stayed in the first time," said Bob Lewis, a Warren salesman. "I'm flat against Bush. If Perot makes more sense than Clinton, I'll listen."

Mr. Perot's paperback, "United We Stand," is indeed leaping out of the bookstores here. "We've sold out four times and we've got a back-list," said Bonnie Leck at B. Dalton in a Youngstown mall.

Labor guys at the Lordstown plant, where 11,000 workers make General Motors' Cavalier and Sunbird models, deny Mr. Perot is doing a Lazarus-from-the-dead comeback.

"There was a surge before Perot dropped out," Darwin Cooper, a United Auto Workers official, said over coffee at the union headquarters. "Now it's minuscule. Our people are solid for Clinton. Most excitement for a Democrat in a dozen years."

But other Ohio-watchers are suspicious Mr. Perot may have hidden potential behind his poll numbers.

"This shouldn't be a good state for Perot because of strong party loyalty," said Herb Asher, Ohio State political scientist. "But clearly he's an agent of change. There's still a residual curiosity about him, a willingness to hear him out."

That means Mr. Perot -- if his TV ads and debate performances click -- could decide Ohio in a tight finish. Mr. Bush won the state easily in 1988. Now, with Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois leaning hard toward Mr. Clinton, Ohio is Mr. Bush's last defense against a blue-collar landslide.

"If Perot gets 10 percent, he affects the Ohio presidential race," said Ohio State professor Asher. "In a razor-thin finish, he hurts Clinton."

What Mr. Perot has going for him here, despite mockery and high negatives, is the deep-set fear over lost manufacturing jobs. Along the Mahoning River, which runs near the Pennsylvania border, 40,000 steel jobs have disappeared. There's ferocious anti-Bush emotion in this Democratic slice of Ohio.

But you hear only muted enthusiasm for Bill Clinton. That's why Mr. Perot, with cocksure answers for America's economic decline, could benefit from Ohio's anxieties and siphon Clinton support.

"Bush can't win Ohio," says George Tablack, 35, the Mahoning County auditor who's Mr. Clinton's local chieftain. "But Perot could win it for Bush."

So when Mr. Perot staged his 30-minute, $300,000 commercial on CBS, Bill Waldkirch and fellow Perotistas were cheering around a big TV set in Girard.

"This thing's going to explode," enthused John Langley, a disabled UAW worker wearing a Perot T-shirt and cap. "I'm not talking 10 or 20 percent, but a three-way race."

"People are sick of bull," insisted old race driver Waldkirch. "I just want Ross to stick around with a third party."

Mr. Perot can't win. Maybe he won't tilt Ohio. But in this depressed valley of silent smokestacks and boarded-up Main Streets, people are desperate for plain talk.

Even from America's Biggest Ego.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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