Perot's appeal not what it used to be Politics: Four years later, Ross Perot finds a schism of voters. Some again want him on the presidential ballot, but others see him as "the candidate of last resort."

June 15, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Ross Perot is back on the stump, railing against the swelling debt and the ignorance and arrogance of Washington with his tinny, 'tween-us-folks style, quoting everyone from Cicero to Rodgers and Hammerstein and attracting camera-toting citizens like a national monument.

But as Perot works to get his Reform Party, or, in some cases, his own name, on the ballot in all states and contemplates another presidential run, the Texas billionaire is finding voters more standoffish, more skeptical of him, his charts and his colorful Wal-Martisms than they were four years ago.

Even among Reform Party staff and volunteers, there is a huge split between those who are pinning their hopes on Perot and those who see him as, in the words of the director of Minnesota's third-party effort, "the candidate of last resort."

Kentucky Reform Party volunteer Charles Arbegust, trying to collect signatures for a third party outside Rupp Arena where Perot spoke this week, sees this schism in his petition effort.

While some signers are eager to see the feisty Texan on the ballot, "some people are violently anti-Perot -- many because they think he was instrumental in getting Clinton elected," said Arbegust, a Perot worker in 1992 who is now hoping for another candidate.

Perot fervor is clearly not what it was four years ago. His speech here before a convention of the U.S. Jaycees was open to the public and had been advertised on radio, in local newspapers and through phone calls to 5,000 known Perot supporters in the area, Arbegust said. But Perot attracted only several dozen beyond the conventioneers.

The cooling off seems to be running both ways. The self-professed "people's servant" kept himself so insulated from the people that he was driven into and out of the arena for his speech here, with only a brief stop to have photos taken with Jaycees officials. He paused not a moment for a handshake or to chat with any of the convention-goers that he quickly marched by. And he refused to grant any time to the news media.

In his speech, Perot, 65, cautioned against the impending "financial meltdown" because of a soaring debt, entitlement programs that are going broke, damaging trade agreements and the erosion of the nation's job and manufacturing base.

"These problems must be solved. We are not going to pass this mess on into the 21st century. If these were instruments on a fighter plane, you would eject right now," he said, whipping up some of his metaphorical lather.

Such messages still seem to resonate, although voters appear to have more doubts about the messenger. When Perot took questions, Jaycees member Karyn Mueller, a 32-year-old desktop publisher from Boonton, N.J., asked how he proposed to fix Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security since he had just spoken at length about their problems.

Perot talked of the need to "pilot-test, debug, optimize" new versions of these programs until "you've got a car out there that you can drive on the test track."

The car talk, Mueller said, only "kinda sorta" answered her question. "I think he's got a lot of really great ideas, but I'm not sure he knows how to implement them."

The politician-bashing politician -- who declined to be interviewed for this article -- offered no hints in his speech about his presidential plans. He insists he does not want to run again but will if no "George Washington II" can be found and his upstart Reform Party nominates him at a convention planned to begin Aug. 18.

At this point, only one person, former Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm, a Democrat, has expressed interest in running on the Reform Party ticket.

Lamm, the keynote speaker at the Reform Party's conference in California earlier this month, said recently he would accept the nomination if is offered, but believes Perot is "probably going to run" and he does not wish to challenge him if he does.

"I think they've got themselves a political Catch-22," said Lamm, in a phone interview, of the Reform Party. "They almost have to go with Perot. He's got the kind of money to get his message across. But there are some who, as much as they love Ross Perot, would like to have another candidate. What they need is a composite."

Still, enthusiasm for Lamm is quietly gaining momentum within the Reform Party. And last week his supporters were heartened when he agreed to deliver the keynote speech at the upcoming convention of the Minnesota Independence Party (soon to be the Reform Party), evidence to many that his interest is increasing.

Lamm said that, in his conversations with Perot, the computer tycoon was "very noncommittal" about his own plans and had been neither encouraging nor discouraging about a Lamm candidacy. "He certainly didn't put his arms around me and say, 'This is my person.' "

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