WASHINGTON -- What to do about Ross Perot?
No one other than Mr. Perot himself and a few of his most devout followers imagine he has any realistic chance of winning the presidency. An overwhelming majority of voters tell opinion polls that they would never vote for the Texas billionaire.
But he is entitled to fair enough treatment so that he won't become a martyr as well as a know-it-all. He did, after all, win 19 percent of the vote four years ago and he has qualified for the ballot in most states and for almost $30 million in federal matching funds. So he can hardly be relegated to the ''minor candidate'' class of candidate curiosities.
On the other hand, there is growing evidence that the voters have been catching on to Mr. Perot. At his high point four years ago, before his withdrawal from the campaign in July, he was running second behind President Bush and ahead of Bill Clinton in some surveys.
An outlandish temperament
And he did manage that 19 percent on Election Day, although by that time he had shown himself to be temperamentally outlandish by, for example, accusing the Bush campaign of plotting to interfere with his daughter's wedding.
Current polls show the Texan with only 5 to 7 percent of the vote. In Texas, where they presumably have enjoyed the most exposure to his charms, he received 4 percent in the most recent poll.
The suspicion that Mr. Perot is wearing thin has also been reinforced by his problems in finding a running mate. After being turned down by some present and former members of Congress, he ended up with economist Pat Choate, who has been an adviser to Mr. Perot and shares his aversion to the North American Free Trade Agreement but hardly has the credentials to add any weight to the ticket.
The immediate question is whether Mr. Perot should be allowed to take part in the debates with President Clinton and the Republican nominee, Bob Dole. The Commission on Presidential Debates has established criteria, but they are flexible enough either to include or exclude Mr. Perot.
One possibility, perhaps the most realistic, would be to allow him to take part in the first debate and then establish some standard for performance in the polls -- say 15 percent -- that he would have to meet to qualify for the other two. There is precedent for that approach; in 1980, independent John B. Anderson was first included, then excluded as his support atrophied.
Problem of news coverage
For newspaper and television news organizations, there is a similar problem. Does their commitment to provide fair coverage of the presidential campaign mean they must give Mr. Perot as much attention as Messrs. Clinton and Dole? Or do they have the nerve to treat him as a sideshow with a potential for affecting the process but without any chance of winning?
Mr. Perot has potential to affect the campaign. If he were included in the debates, for example, he could be expected to attack Senator Dole's plan for a 15 percent tax cut, thus doing some of the dirty work President Clinton might prefer to leave to someone else in a year in which voters revile negative campaigning.
The anti-Clinton vote
Just how Mr. Perot affects the political arithmetic is difficult to compute. Polls suggest that he attracts much of his support from anti-Clinton voters. But it is not clear that those voters necessarily would cast ballots for Mr. Dole if Mr. Perot were not on the ballot.
Right now, all these computations seem largely academic because Mr. Clinton holds such an imposing lead over Senator Dole. But if the contest tightens, even 5 percent of the vote one way or the other could be significant.
What Mr. Perot demonstrates most of all is the corrupting impact of money on American politics. In 1992, he had to be taken seriously by both the press and political community because he was prepared to spend $50 or $60 million of his own money to buy the advertising that would make him a player. This time it is that $30 million in federal matching money that is his prime credential. He will spend most of it on television advertising. It will make him a highly visible figure. But that doesn't mean he has to be taken seriously.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 9/16/96