Clinton camp may aim at Perot Texas billionaire's steady rise in polls since debates spurs review of strategy

October 22, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief Staff writer John Fairhall in Little Rock, Ark. contributed to this story.

DENVER -- Amid signs that support for Ross Perot could be growing, Gov. Bill Clinton may begin directly attacking the Texas billionaire in the final days of the presidential race, campaign officials said yesterday.

The Democratic nominee continues to maintain a commanding lead over President Bush and Mr. Perot in the polls. But support for the independent candidate appears, if anything, to be increasingly as Election Day nears.

One independent pollster said voters have adopted a far more positive view of Mr. Perot since the presidential debates, in which he received generally high marks from the public and politicians.

Before the debates, Mr. Perot was at about 10 percent in most national voter surveys. His support has now grown to 15 or 16 percent, according to the latest national polls, and one top Clinton official said yesterday that Mr. Perot has reached the high teens.

An upswing in Perot support is precisely the opposite of what most strategists in the Clinton and Bush camps were expecting. Instead, the predictions were that Mr. Perot would fade as it became increasingly clear that he could not win.

For weeks, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush have generally avoided singling out Mr. Perot for criticism, hoping to become the second choice of discouraged Perot backers by Nov. 3.

Now, however, some Clinton advisers have concluded that it would be better to risk alienating Perot supporters by taking him on directly, than to allow his support to grow unchallenged.

"It's under active debate," confirmed Fred DuVal, the Clinton campaign coordinator in Colorado, perhaps the strongest Perot state in the nation.

George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Clinton's communications director, said there are no plans to attack Mr. Perot, either in speeches or advertisements. Asked whether the campaign is even considering it, he said, "I think it's way overstated on the considering thing."

He acknowledged, however, that Mr. Perot's support is on the upswing.

"I think it's clear from all the polling that Perot is moving," Mr. Stephanopoulos said. "He's in the high teens.

Mr. Clinton appeared to take the first tentative steps toward a change in strategy yesterday, contrasting himself with both Mr. Bush and Mr. Perot as he launched his "winning the West" campaign tour of several traditionally Republican Rocky Mountain states.

"There's just one candidate in this race who has ever balanced a government budget, who has ever passed a campaign finance reform package, who has ever passed a law limiting the influence of lobbies, who has ever passed a substantive reform package to promote jobs and education," he told a crowd of supporters at an outdoor rally in Pueblo, Colo.

Those remarks were clearly designed to appeal to Perot supporters on many of the key issues of the independent's candidacy. At the same time, they went to the heart of voter concerns about whether the Texas businessman could function effectively in the world of government.

While mild in tone, the comments were a shift from the non-agressive stance Mr. Clinton adopted toward Mr. Perot in Monday night's final presidential debate in East Lansing, Mich., when he took several opportunities to agree with Mr. Perot's statements.

And though he defended himself when Mr. Perot attacked him -- prefacing his response by saying "with all respect" -- Mr. Clinton pointedly ducked an opportunity to criticize Mr. Perot for having quit the campaign in July after he began to face intense media scrutiny.

"I don't have any criticism of Mr. Perot," Mr. Clinton replied when moderator Jim Lehrer asked him to comment, then changed the subject.

For his part, Mr. Perot has generally sought to avoid provoking Mr. Clinton, concentrating instead on savaging Mr. Bush. He rebuked his national campaign coordinator, Orson Swindle, after Mr. Swindle said on television last weekend that "a vote for Bill Clinton would be a disaster."

Clinton advisers believe Mr. Perot is particularly vulnerable on several issues, including his proposal to increase gasoline taxes by 50 cents a gallon and his reported penchant for launching private investigations into the affairs of his adversaries, and even some of his campaign volunteers.

Those issues are regarded as particularly important in Western states, such as Colorado, Arizona, and Montana, where Mr. Clinton holds a slender lead that could evaporate if Mr. Perot's strength increases.

In Colorado, for example, Mr. Perot is running as much as 10 percentage points ahead of his standing in the national polls, which reached 16 percent in two national surveys taken after the debates and released yesterday.

Any decision to attack Mr. Perot poses a potential risk for Mr. Clinton, in that he would likely alienate many Perot supporters for good and possibly help Mr. Bush in the end. And it is by no means clear that Mr. Clinton, who has adopted a very cautious strategy throughout the fall, will choose to step up his criticism of the third-place candidate at this late date.

However, he may be forced to act if Mr. Perot's support continues to grow. At the moment it is increasing too slowly to pose an immediate threat to either Mr. Clinton or Mr. Bush.

But Brad Coker, an independent pollster based in Columbia, Md., said his most recent surveys around the country show that the proportion of Americans who have an unfavorable impression of Mr. Perot has dropped dramatically, from around 50 percent to the high 20s or low 30s.

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