Perot May Be Down, But His Voters Aren't

ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

May 28, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Although Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 in Maryland, C. Ronald Franks decided there was one "crucial factor" that makes him electable this year for the U.S. Senate.

"They've had different names," says Mr. Franks, a Republican state delegate and dentist from the Eastern Shore. "Reagan Democrats, swing voters . . ."

For the past two years, this group of angry, disaffected voters with no strong allegiance to either party -- about one-fifth of the electorate -- has been known as the Perot vote.

Mr. Franks and other candidates who are trying to unseat incumbents around the country in this year's midterm elections believe this group is still worth wooing.

A "Perot factor" still looms on the political landscape, even as Ross Perot's popularity has nose-dived and as United We Stand, America, the organization he started from the ashes of his '92 presidential campaign, has found its fortunes diminished in many states.

How large the "Perot factor" is remains an open question, and political observers believe this year's elections could provide some answers.

Frank I. Luntz, formerly a pollster for Mr. Perot who is now advising Republican candidates for Congress, including Mr. Franks, believes Mr. Perot and United We Stand have have become "relatively irrelevant" -- but not so the anti-Washington, anti-incumbent sentiment that the Texan embodied.

In close races, particularly in areas where Mr. Perot did well in the presidential race, those voters could make a difference this year, he believes. "If we see a higher percentage of challengers win in '94, we'll know Perot still has serious impact."

Similarly, Charles E. Cook Jr., an analyst of congressional elections, says, "I don't think United We Stand will have the slightest impact on the elections."

But, he says, should Mr. Perot himself mount a broad campaign against incumbents late in the game, "the results could be fairly dramatic," possibly toppling incumbents who might otherwise have won by a few percentage points.

"I think he's got more credibility on a broader, more thematic basis than he does campaigning against specific incumbents," Mr. Cook said.

If the Perot vote has any impact this year, analysts say, it will likely be in a place like Maine, where Mr. Perot had his best showing in 1992. The retirement of Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine is expected to give way to a tight race between Rep. Thomas H. Andrews, a Democrat, and Rep. Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican.

Or it could affect the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, where the electorate does not historically vote Republican but may be disenchanted with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the longtime Democratic incumbent.

Perot got 14% in Md.

Mr. Franks believes the Perot margin gives him a shot in Maryland, where 14 percent of voters turned out for the Texan in 1992. Unlike most of his fellow candidates, Mr. Franks has been attending United We Stand-sponsored candidates forums around the state.

Chris Deri, deputy campaign manager for Ruthann Aron, a Republican candidate for the Senate seat in Maryland, says Ms. Aron attended one United We Stand forum in Crofton. "We treat them as we do any interest group," Mr. Deri said.

The United We Stand appeal, he said, is not so much in its numbers -- a secret guarded by Mr. Perot's

Dallas headquarters as though it were the combination to a bank vault -- but the force of its voice.

"For better or for worse, [United We Stand] brings together activists," he said. "We are always eager to get in front of a group of activists."

To maintain a tax-exempt status, United We Stand does not officially endorse candidates, although it has ways of getting around that limitation in Maryland, where several members who support Mr. Franks have formed a subgroup, "Citizens for Franks," and are working for his candidacy.

Few serious political candidates have been spawned from the movement as was once expected.

Concord Coalition

"In terms of credible candidates . . . there are more Concord Coalition people than Perot people," says Mr. Cook, referring to the group founded by two former senators, Warren B. Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican, and Paul E. Tsongas, a Massachusetts Democrat. The group shares the Perot concern about the federal budget deficit.

William J. Frank, a Republican who is Baltimore director of the Concord Coalition, is running for the seat being vacated by Rep. Helen Delich Bentley of Baltimore County and is promising to turn that race into a lively competition.

United We Stand generally is made up of hard-core Perot devotees -- about 1 of every 5 people who voted for him, Mr. Luntz said.

But some believe the organization persists in spite of Mr. Perot, whose power, persona and popularity were greatly diminished after his hot-headed performance in the televised NAFTA debate with Vice President Al Gore last fall.

As Mr. Perot's appeal has diminished, his organization has been hit by power struggles and, in some cases, great disarray.

Shake-up in 12 states

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