Perot's re-entry prompts cautious smiles, irritation Third party threatens to divide Republicans, aid Clinton campaign

September 27, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Just as he was being eclipsed by the new crop of candidates and could-be candidates for 1996, Ross Perot has injected himself back into the presidential picture, further jumbling next year's already unpredictable political landscape.

Mr. Perot's Monday night announcement that he was launching a third political party, the Independence Party, was met yesterday by cautious glee among Democrats, tempered irritation among Republicans -- and uncertainty among nearly everyone.

"If the election were being held today, it would be good news for the president," said Democratic consultant Greg Schneiders. "But a lot of things can happen between now and November [1996]."

The mercurial Texas billionaire received 19 percent of the vote as an independent presidential candidate in 1992, drawing equally from Republican and Democratic voters. But since then, his supporters have lined up more and more with the GOP. A third party, backed largely by Perot supporters and swing voters, could fracture the anti-Clinton vote and give the president the edge.

But if the president thought so, he wasn't saying yesterday. "I'm trying to balance the budget and I'm an ardent promoter of political reform, as you know, but he'll have to do whatever he wants to do and the American people can make their judgment," Mr. Clinton told reporters.

Some Republicans feared that Mr. Perot would undermine their cause. "It's a 'deja-lose' formula that would make 1996 a rerun of 1992," GOP presidential hopeful Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor, said in a statement.

Others called it "Haley Barbour's worst nightmare," referring to the head of the Republican National Committee.

But some Republicans, including Mr. Barbour, tried to play down the impact of a third party, saying there were still too many variables at play.

"Democrats who think Ross Perot's announcement last night will save them are in for a rude awakening," Mr. Barbour said. Both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Perot "will learn things are mighty different than in 1992," he added.

Eddie Mahe, a GOP consultant, called the new party "a pipe dream," saying he doubts Mr. Perot can clear the first hurdle, meeting California's Oct. 24 deadline for new parties to get on its 1996 ballot.

To secure a spot, the new Perot party needs to collect the signature of 890,000 registered California voters or get 89,000 Californians to register as members of the party.

Like Mr. Mahe, Richard Winger, editor of the San Francisco-based Ballot Access News, views collection of enough signatures as "impossible" in such a short time. "Nobody could do that," he said.

Mr. Winger said Mr. Perot might have better luck convincing enough people in California to register as Independence Party voters, a route that Mr. Perot's United We Stand America (UWSA) staffers and volunteers are said to be pursuing more doggedly.

"We feel we can do it," said Pat Muth, executive director of UWSA in Florida, who is in California helping with the registration and petition drives there.

Sharon Holman, Mr. Perot's spokeswoman, also expressed confidence, saying that between 8:25 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Monday, after Mr. Perot announced his 800 number on CNN's "Larry King Live," there were 800,000 attempted calls.

But another key to the success and impact of the Independence Party, of course, is who ultimately will run as its presidential nominee. Mr. Perot has been vague about possible candidates, with speculation circling around the billionaire himself and the nation's most closely watched presidential possibility, Gen. Colin L. Powell, who has not yet announced his intentions.

At a morning appearance in California, General Powell said he talked with Mr. Perot over the weekend but made no commitment to him.

"I'll watch and wait and see how this initiative develops and keep my options open," Gen. Powell said.

General Powell has said he is considering running as an independent, and some believe this new party would give him the funding, organization and cadre of activists he would need. But others believe he would be foolish to align himself with Mr. Perot, who has high negative ratings among voters and is seen by many as a political gadfly.

"Why would a Colin Powell accept Perot's nomination and Perot's platform?" said Stephen Hess, a presidential expert at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Hess is among those who believe the most logical consequence of Mr. Perot's new party is that "Ross Perot runs again for president."

Indeed, a number of the UWSA directors who are now mobilizing petition drives in all 50 states -- and who will likely have key roles in the nominating process -- said they would like to see Mr. Perot as the candidate.

Maryland's UWSA executive director, Joan Vinson, says she, for one, would. "Because of his reputation, background, experience, he is a person who has a resume worthy of being president," said Ms. Vinson.

To get on the Maryland ballot, Mr. Perot's activists must collect the signatures of 10,000 registered voters by Aug. 5, 1996.

According to Mr. Winger, the ballot-law analyst, it is easier to get on the ballot as a third-party candidate than as an independent. Still, Democrats and Republicans expressed skepticism that a third party would be appealing enough to voters to win a presidential election or supplant one of the existing major parties, as Mr. Perot predicted Monday night.

That hasn't happened since 1856, when the Republican Party grew out of the collapse of the Whig party over the issue of slavery.

"The odds of creating a serious third party in the U.S. are virtually nil," said Mr. Hess. "We are a two-party country, have always been, and polls show people like it that way." He added that for one party to absorb another, "you need an issue like slavery."

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, too, called Mr. Perot's endeavor "a substantial mistake" and "a fantasy of delusion."

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