Dealing with Perot is a delicate affair for his opponents Billionaire's candidacy helps major parties

October 26, 1992|By New York Times

WASHINGTON -- Ross Perot's climb in the polls, which shook the political terrain last week, may be leveling off, strategists in the Clinton campaign say.

And some political professionals suggest that his remarkable accusations this weekend of Republican dirty tricks could feed voter doubts about a man criticized in the past as seeing conspiracies all around.

But the resurgence of Mr. Perot's candidacy has turned the endgame of this campaign into a very delicate affair. Thus the 1992 presidential campaign is ending as it began, with strategists in both major parties trying to chart, quantify, defuse or turn to their advantage the mercurial candidacy of Ross Perot.

Over the past week, the Bush and Clinton campaigns have come to realize that reports of Mr. Perot's political insignificance were premature.

Unlike other recent independent candidates, who were fading by this point in the electoral season, Mr. Perot had both a place in three presidential debates and the money for major television advertising. One question has come to loom over the Democratic and Republican campaigns: Can the Texas billionaire go beyond the 15 percent to 20 percent in the polls he had by week's end?

Part of the answer may be in the reaction to last night's broadcast of the CBS program "60 Minutes," when Mr. Perot made accusations that Republicans plotted to disrupt his daughter's wedding and wiretap his office.

Will it resurrect the damaging old image of "Inspector Perot," created during his first presidential campaign last spring? Or will it make him appear as he wants to appear, as the feisty Texan willing to defend hearth and home against politicians willing to do anything to win?

So far, both campaigns have been wary of directly taking on Mr. Perot, and running the risk of driving his supporters to the opposition's camp. Moreover, Mr. Perot's candidacy is a help to the Republicans in some states, primarily in the Midwest, and a help to the Democrats in others, primarily in the South. This means their strategy and their approach to Mr. Perot must be carefully calibrated and regionally focused.

There is a school of thought, held by some of Mr. Clinton's strategists, that Mr. Perot may be a self-correcting problem. The debates and his advertising blitz provided Mr. Perot with his own "convention bounce," this analysis goes, but as the voters draw closer to Election Day their concerns will reassert themselves.

Some Democrats argue that the recent round of polls that show a tightening race will drive many voters back to Mr. Clinton because they do not want to inadvertently re-elect Mr. Bush. Moreover, Mr. Perot's resurgence in the polls also is ratcheting up the media scrutiny that proved so problematic to the Dallas executive last spring.

Stan Greenberg, a poll taker for Mr. Clinton, said yesterday: " '60 Minutes' is a very widely watched show, and he is, after all, accusing the president of the United States of organizing an assault on his daughter's wedding. Either he's going to marginalize himself or the president is going to be embroiled in a controversy. I think it's more likely he will marginalize himself."

Still, the Bush campaign was concerned enough about the charges to issue a long, angry denial.

The case for a fade by Mr. Perot is largely premised on the historical dynamic that has capped other third party and independent campaigns: the reluctance to throw away a presidential vote.

Fred Steeper, the poll taker for Mr. Bush, said his campaign's surveys show that about half of Mr. Perot's supporters say they would shift to one of the major party candidates if they believe that Mr. Perot has no chance of winning.

But what if Mr. Perot bounces up to the next plateau, and is suddenly considered very much in the race, an electable alternative in a true three-way contest? Mr. Steeper also notes that his polling shows Mr. Perot is a popular second choice. This possibility, which would send the campaign into the electoral wilds, is what keeps the strategists anxiously focused on the polls these days.

Mr. Perot already has been trying to defuse the "don't waste your vote" argument, comparing it yesterday to "stealing votes." Steven J. Rosenstone of the University of Michigan, an expert on third-party and independent candidacies, cautioned yesterday that there are important differences between Mr. Perot and past independent candidacies.

"The debates bestowed a certain legitimacy on him that his predecessors, including George Wallace, had to struggle to get," Mr. Rosenstone said.

"I would still bet on the side of him falling closer to 10 [percent] than rising to more than 20 [percent]. But again, the thing that makes it so different is his ability to keep pace with the major parties on resources."

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