Perot taking a chance in taking on Clinton ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- Ross Perot is taking a clear political risk by launching what he calls a "concerted campaign" to defeat President Clinton's economic plan when Congress votes on it this week.

Ever since he polled 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential election, politicians have been trying to figure out whether the Texas billionaire has the ability to convert his followers into a cohesive and influential political force. Now Perot says United We Stand America (UWSA), his organization, is being fully mobilized against the Clinton plan.

For his own part, Perot is doing what he obviously likes to do most -- making himself ubiquitous on television. Over the weekend he scheduled himself on the CBS and NBC morning shows, two different programs on CNN and then "Meet the Press" on NBC. He also has raised the possibility of buying time for another of his celebrated "infomercials" -- half-hour appearances on network TV that, to the dismay of the conventional politicians, seem to attract substantial audiences.

But Perot may be biting off too big a chunk this time. Although there is still time for the Clinton plan to come apart, the betting in Congress is that the Democrats finally will put together the necessary votes to pass it this week -- if only because the alternative would be such a political disaster for the Democratic Party. If that happens, it will be reasonable to at least wonder about Perot's influence.

On the other hand, it is equally fair to say that if something goes awry with the Clinton plan, Perot will be in a strong position to claim some responsibility.

There are good reasons to wonder about the clout of the Texas billionaire. The most recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found, for example, that only 39 percent of the voters believed Perot was offering a "realistic alternative" to the Clinton plan compared with 46 percent who believed his criticism was "purely political." Those figures suggest more and more voters may be catching wise to Ross Perot -- that is, recognizing that he is a 1996 presidential candidate in waiting determined to hack up the incumbent.

It is also reasonable to wonder if Perot supporters, including those actively involved in UWSA, are a monolithic political force. Almost by definition, they are voters inclined to be independent in their judgments. And many of them, a recent study found, are more concerned about congressional gridlock than any thing else, thus raising the question of whether they will be willing to weigh in against congressional action in this case.

Up to this point, Perot's clout has never been tested directly. He and UWSA delivered an eleventh-hour de facto endorsement to Republican Kay Baily Hutchison in the special Senate election in Texas in June. But that action was taken at a time when it already was apparent that Hutchison was likely to bury Democrat Bob Krueger in a landslide.

The offensive against the economic plan raises again the issue of how long political leaders of the two major parties -- including President Clinton himself -- can turn the other cheek in dealing with Perot.

So far Perot has been given what amounts to a free ride by the major parties, except for some sharp comments from Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole. Instead, Democrats and Republicans alike have been trying to find ways to enlist Perot backers and, in so doing, have been plainly afraid to challenge the Texan directly.

For President Clinton, the problem is complex. On the one hand, he now gives the appearance of allowing Perot to batter him mercilessly without ever snapping back at him. On the other, a response from the president might appear to inflate Perot's stature. The answer might be to enlist other Democrats of prominence to cut the Texan down to size politically, but so far no one with any weight has shown any inclination to do that.

But Perot has provided an opening by taking it upon himself to try to kill the Clinton plan. If he doesn't succeed, maybe some of the more orthodox politicians will be less frightened of him than they are today. At some point -- either now or in 1996 -- the Republicans and Democrats are both going to have to take him on directly.

The one thing that is unmistakably clear is that he isn't going to go away.

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