Perot 'Daughtergate' gets spotlight Strategists unsure of allegation's impact on race

October 27, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- Political strategists scrambled yesterday to assess the impact of "Daughtergate" -- Ross Perot's assertion that a Republican smear campaign against his youngest daughter caused him to quit the race in July.

With new polls showing support for Mr. Perot leveling off or falling slightly, the Texas billionaire strode unannounced into a news briefing and attacked reporters for questioning his integrity.

His bitter tirade was sharply at odds with the relaxed, homespun image Mr. Perot has been projecting in his unprecedented TV ad blitz.

The testy exchanges were also a virtual replay of the ones that preceded his withdrawal from the race last summer and that led even some of his most loyal supporters to brand him a quitter.

Over the weekend, the independent candidate said he had pulled out of the race because of unsubstantiated reports that Republican dirty tricks would spoil the wedding day in August of his daughter, Carolyn.

Yesterday, his son, Ross Jr., told reporters that his father's new explanation "absolutely" put to rest the quitter image.

Others weren't so sure. Bush and Clinton campaign officials agreed that Mr. Perot's weekend comments and his angry news conference had succeeded in dominating news coverage of the presidential contest, to Mr. Bush's disadvantage, on a day in which the president gave a major speech outlining a second-term agenda.

With less than a week left in the campaign, every day Mr. Bush's message is obscured is one day less for him to close the gap with the front-runner, Mr. Clinton.

Recent polls show fully half of Mr. Perot's support is still "soft," that is, it could go elsewhere.

And officials in the opposing camps also said that Mr. Perot's latest comments could well revive the public's earlier doubts about him, including his penchant for conspiracy theories and his willingness to investigate associates and tape-record phone calls to his offices.

Mr. Perot's disclosure, that he quit the race because he would "not risk ruining one of the most important days" of his daughter's life, could also renew questions about whether he is truly serious about seeking the nation's highest office.

Those concerns flared anew this month when he re-entered the race and announced that James B. Stockdale, originally picked as his stand-in running mate until a permanent replacement could be found, would serve as his running mate after all.

Any new concerns about his viability as a candidate could not come at a worse time for Mr. Perot, who is attempting to fight, with millions of dollars in TV and radio ads, the perception that a vote for him would be a wasted one.

Charles Black, a senior Bush campaign strategist, said Mr. Perot's "very calculated" attempt to erase the quitter label had "clearly backfired."

"I think the general consensus is that Perot is killing himself," said an elated official at Democratic national headquarters in Washington.

A spate of polls over the weekend showed Mr. Clinton's lead over Mr. Bush shrinking because of gains by Mr. Perot, and most analysts believe that if Mr. Perot suffers a reversal in the final days of the race, the Democratic nominee would benefit more than Mr. Bush.

A Bush campaign official seemed to agree, describing as "a mistake" White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater's attack on Mr. Perot yesterday as "a paranoid person who has delusions."

At the Clinton campaign command center in Little Rock, Ark., aides were using the term "Daughtergate" to describe the latest Perot charge of dirty tricks against the GOP.

Mr. Perot himself called it "Watergate II" on Sunday.

A new Gallup poll for CNN and USA Today, released last night, showed Mr. Clinton's lead jumping to 11 points over Mr. Bush, 42 percent to 31 percent, in polling completed Sunday night.

Mr. Perot's support dropped one percentage point, to 19. An ABC News poll, also released last night, had a similar result, 44-33-19.

But campaign officials, who have been wrong so often this year when it comes to estimating Mr. Perot's popular appeal, said it would be several more days before the electorate would have digested the latest controversy involving the 62-year-old businessman.

"[Bush pollster Robert] Teeter and I had a conversation an hour ago," Mr. Black said late yesterday. "I told him: 'I can't tell you whether Perot will be closer to 22 or 12" percent on Election Day.

"I can't either," said James Carville, the chief Clinton strategist.

James Lake, another Bush campaign adviser, said it was possible that Mr. Perot could emerge even stronger over the next few days.

"I think that he looks rather silly," the Bush adviser said, "But you know, there are a lot of people who share his sort of conspiratorial assessment of the press and the established parties. So it's really hard to know."

He added that Mr. Perot's explanation about protecting his daughter's reputation from possible harm "establishes beautifully for him with a lot of people a very plausible, believable, sympathetic rationale for having dropped out."

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