Perot may heed his party's call To GOP's dismay, '92 candidate hints at independent run

Campaign 1996

March 21, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Just as the roar of the presidential primary season has quieted, a new rumble is beginning to emerge. To the dismay of Republicans who believe he will chip away at their nominee's support, Ross Perot is dropping ever stronger hints that he will run for the presidency in 1996 as the nominee of his Reform Party.

And those working for him, such as Maryland's Reform Party director, Joan Vinson, say now that the two players in the presidential race have been determined, the Texas billionaire is increasingly interested in jumping in.

"I've never operated with any assumption other than that he would be the nominee of the party," said Gordon Black, a pollster who has advised Mr. Perot.

For the past six months, Mr. Perot, who won 19 percent of the vote as an independent presidential candidate four years ago after spending $60 million of his own money, has been quietly funding an effort to get his Reform Party on the ballot in all 50 states.

Yesterday, he repeated to a Dallas television station what has become his standard refrain for the past four years: "This is not about me."

But earlier this week, he told a San Antonio radio station that if his Reform Party members want him to run and by all accounts, they do, with a vengeance he would enter the race and "give it everything I have."

Tomorrow night, he's likely to flirt with the "will he or won't he?" question some more when he returns to CNN's "Larry King Live." And next week, he is scheduled to give what his organization is calling "a major speech" to a Rotary Club in Philadelphia.

But he is not expected to announce definitive plans until late summer, when a convention of his Reform Party will choose a nominee.

Ms. Vinson says there is little doubt that a "majority" of Reform Party supporters want Mr. Perot to be that person. Asked whether anyone else had expressed interest in being the nominee, Russ Verney, the party's national director, said no.

But among the entire voting public, most analysts believe that Mr. Perot has much less appeal today than he had in 1992 when he emerged as a colorful, straight-talking antidote to political business as usual.

Even his Texas state chairman, Paul Truax, acknowledges: "I don't think we'll see the total groundswell we saw in '92. He was such a novelty then. The enthusiasm today comes more from people not being satisfied with either of their choices."

Damaged by the on-again, off-again nature of his prior presidential campaign, his prickly personality and his clumsy performances when taking on the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, Mr. Perot's popularity is 20 percentage points lower than it was four years ago, according to national opinion polls.

Still, even if he draws one-quarter of the votes he won in 1992, he is likely to have an impact on the election. And most political experts believe such a third-party entry would hurt the presumptive Republican nominee, Bob Dole, by siphoning away votes.

Mr. Perot and his followers dismiss as "Republican propaganda" the theory that his candidacy would deliver the election to Mr. Clinton. They cite exit polls from the 1992 election that show the Perot votes coming equally from the Bush and Clinton camps.

But other polls by Mr. Black, a Perot enthusiast, as well as by the Clinton campaign show that the core of Mr. Perot's support comes more from Republican ranks. His following includes equal numbers of Democratic-leaning voters only when it reaches about 19 percent, the portion of the vote Mr. Perot received in 1992.

"I don't think he's likely to do that well this year, but he doesn't have to do that well to derail the Republicans," said William Mayer, a political science professor at Boston's Northeastern University who has written about third-party candidates. "If he soaks up just 5 percent, overwhelmingly from Republicans, it could cost Dole 3 points. He [Dole] doesn't have a couple of points to spare."

For his part, Mr. Dole acknowledges concern about a Perot candidacy. "It wouldn't make it easier," he said yesterday.

He has tried to convince Mr. Perot that the Republican Party is the natural home for his supporters, who tend to be interested in campaign finance and lobbying reform, a balanced budget, deficit reduction and term limits.

"Ross, we are the reform party," Mr. Dole said on CNN this week. "Every issue you've raised, we have had or will have a vote on it. Ross, what else do you want?"

It seems clear that Mr. Perot wants his own seat at the table. His Reform Party which had the Independence Party, United We Stand America, and the '92 Perot candidacy as its forerunners has qualified for presidential ballots in five states so far.

In Maryland, where a petition drive was kicked off last weekend, the party has until Aug. 5 to collect the signatures of 10,000 registered voters.

Having escaped the messy primary process, the Reform Party nominee to be chosen at a high-tech convention in late August or early September at which registered party members throughout the country can vote electronically will have an abbreviated campaign season.

In fact, Mr. Black, who helped persuade Mr. Perot to form a third political party, says a Perot candidacy next fall would be much like the campaign the businessman waged when he re-entered the '92 race only a month before the general election.

There would likely be no professional strategists or pollsters on board, Mr. Black says, and a heavy reliance on the half-hour infomercials that earned for Mr. Perot the 1992 "Advertiser of the Year" award from the ad industry.

What's more, Mr. Black says, the public could see a calmer candidate. "He has learned that he has to be thicker-skinned," says the pollster, who says he hopes the public will forgive what he calls his friend's "peculiarities of style."

Pub Date: 3/21/96

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