Perot entry muddies waters Announcement rattles Republicans, some members of his party

July 12, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Although much of the sizzle surrounding Ross Perot has died down since his independent bid for the presidency four years ago, the maverick Texas billionaire has thrust himself into the presidential picture once again, rattling Republicans and even some within his fledgling third party.

Appearing to firm up his resolve to accept the nomination of the Reform Party if it is offered, Perot said yesterday he would run because "the American people want me to do this."

"I will do it," he said on ABC's "Good Morning America," "and I'm in a unique position to do it."

Few were surprised by Perot's entry, but some Reform members said they were taken aback by the timing: one day after former Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm declared his candidacy for the Reform Party nomination.

Lamm and other Reform members who were hoping to see the party reach out to a broader constituency said yesterday they were disappointed that Perot raced in.

"There's a feeling almost of betrayal," said Mark Sturdevant, vice chairman of the Reform Party of California, who is supporting Lamm. "It's almost as if he couldn't sit still in getting his candidacy out.

"The foundation was being built for something much larger than Ross Perot, something for people with a broader coalition of leaders in it. Now I'm not so sure."

William Mayer, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University, said Perot's actions suggest that he isn't willing to surrender the party he has built and bankrolled to anyone else.

"The moment Lamm got in, Perot got off the fence," said Mayer, who studies third parties. "For all his comments that, 'This is not about me,' his actions suggest that's exactly what he thinks it's about."

For his part, Lamm met yesterday with the Minnesota Reform Party, which supports his candidacy. He told reporters, "I don't think it's best for the party that he [Perot] runs. I think the Reform Party needs a new face."

Citing differences between himself and Perot, he said: "I think that America needs somebody that doesn't lust for the office."

Although exit polls in 1992 indicated that Perot's 19 percent drew equally from Democrats and Republicans, Republicans have been worried that a Perot candidacy would siphon off anti-Clinton votes from presumptive GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole.

Dole, interviewed on the Don Imus radio show yesterday morning, said: "I would hope he wouldn't run. I would hope it

would be a two-man race."

The response from the White House was more nonchalant. "Perhaps this other candidate's seeking the Reform Party nomination will enliven the debate," White House press secretary Mike McCurry said.

But Perot's following has changed in the last several years, and may be more Democratic-leaning than in the past.

"Precisely because his following is so amorphous, and has evolved over time, it's difficult to make a firm prediction for 1996," Mayer said.

Republican strategist Eddie Mahe says Perot, if he gains the nomination, is unlikely to draw enough votes away from either party to sway the election. If anything, he says Perot could help Dole, who has tended to appear caustic on TV, in fall debates.

"Perot keeps it from ever being a Clinton-Dole match-up," said Mahe. "He provides the comic relief and reduces the possibility of Bob Dole coming back with too much intensity."

Although many of Perot's 1992 supporters have defected, the Reform Party is still dominated by those loyal to him, some of whom are paid by his Dallas operation.

"There's a lot of support for Perot," said Maryland's Reform Party chairman, Joan Vinson, a Perot loyalist. "That support can increase very dramatically if he gets out there publicly."

But there also is a sizable chunk of the Reform Party that, believing Perot is damaged goods, has been hoping for another candidate, and embraced Lamm. That faction wanted to see Perot more actively seek out and encourage other candidates.

"That's what we assumed would happen," said Ralph Copeland, a Reform Party member in Virginia. "But it didn't happen."

Copeland, like others, believes it will be nearly impossible for Lamm to beat Perot. "It will be very, very difficult for anyone to unseat Perot as the nominee," said Copeland, who ran Perot's 1992 campaign in Oregon.

He noted that in a recent poll of the Virginia delegation, 70 percent threw their support behind Perot while 30 percent went with Lamm. "It may change to 60-40, but it's Perot's ballgame," said Copeland. "You're in the jungle of the 400-pound gorilla."

Copeland said he is concentrating his efforts on ensuring that the nominating process is "not rigged."

The Reform Party sent out 1.3 million ballots to members this week, with only Perot and Lamm listed. Other names can be written in. Anyone who receives support from 10 percent of the members qualifies as a candidate.

Those who qualify will be announced Aug. 11 in Long Beach, Calif., the first part of a two-part nominating convention. A week later, after the membership has voted via mail and e-mail, the winner will be announced at a gathering in Valley Forge, Pa.

Perot said Wednesday night that the votes will be tabulated by an independent accounting firm, but would not name the firm. He said the winner's name will be placed in an envelope to be opened at the convention.

Sturdevant said he is dubious about the "secret balloting" and would like to see more openness in the nominating process.

Pub Date: 7/12/96

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