For all his maneuvering, Perot just keeps sliding



WASHINGTON -- About all that has been clarified by Ross Perot's gathering of the state leaders of his "United We Stand America" organization in Dallas is that he continues to hold a firm grip on it behind his customary veil of secrecy.

Not only were reporters kept out of almost all the business sessions, but by a vote of 42-8 the leaders followed Perot's preference of not releasing any numbers on the organization's membership. At a press conference, he again dismissed questions about the size of the membership as "Silly Putty."

For those who have no small kids at home or never have had any, Silly Putty is a substance that can be easily molded into various shapes -- not a bad description of what Perot himself apparently has managed to do with the organization since his on-again, off-again, on-again presidential candidacy in 1992.

One state leader, Greg Kiesinger of New York, insists the decision on keeping the membership total private -- even the state leaders were not told -- was justified because the numbers game would take the public focus off the issues the organization wants to emphasize. Also, he says, if it turned out to be low it would trigger disappointment among the members, and if it turned out to be high it might generate apathy.

The attendees included the elected leaders in most of the 50 states along with state directors appointed from Dallas and paid by Perot. Their presence, Perot dissidents say, assures his iron-handed control, and the dissidents also question the legitimacy of some of the state chairmen in elections overseen by the paid directors.

A new board of directors is to include five key Perot operatives based in Dallas and five elected state chairmen representing geographical regions, plus Perot, effectively giving him control even if all five state chairmen should stray on anything, which isn't likely.

The question of the organization's membership strength is critical in assessing its potential for effective political action, and Perot's insistence on keeping it secret suggests it does not measure up to his boastful rhetoric about making elected officeholders in Washington shape up or be shipped out at the polls.

An agenda for 1994 was made known that includes the familiar Perot objectives of a balanced budget constitutional amendment, the line-item veto, campaign finance reform, term limits, welfare and health care reform, and war on foreign lobbyists and government waste and fraud. But there was no talk of endorsing or running candidates for office, which the organization's tax status bars, or of creation of an independent party.

All this is pretty tame stuff after Perot's threats during his unsuccessful fight to derail the North American Free Trade Agreement and that the members of United We Stand would "remember in November" of 1994 all those members of Congress who voted for it. NAFTA will be only one of a number of issues on which a "report card" of the votes of congressmen will be transmitted to organization members via a new informational network, according to Kiesinger.

Meanwhile, factionalism continues to plague the organization in some states. In New York, a rival group to Kiesinger's has registered itself as "United We Stand America, New York Inc." and its leader, Alex Rodriguez, has called on the Dallas headquarters "to stop using our name." Rodriguez, who says he "bought into the full cult mentality" in 1992, got out and organized the New York offshoot when it became clear that Perot intended to control the whole movement out of Dallas.

In New York this year, Rodriguez says, his group plans to send out 20,000 pieces of direct mail supporting specific candidates and emphasizing that Perot, "who is the problem, not the solution," no longer has anything to do with his state effort.

Ever since Perot's debate against Vice President Al Gore during the congressional consideration of NAFTA, in which Perot was largely reduced to sloganeering and complaining that he was being treated unfairly, his stock has been falling in the polls. Nothing that was said or done at the weekend meeting in Dallas is likely to reverse that slide as he continues his penchant for secrecy and control.

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