WASHINGTON — H. ROSS PEROT, a self-made Texas billionaire who criticizes government like a hard-scrabble populist, could be the next major candidate for president in 1992.
Mr. Perot vows to enter the race as an independent if volunteers get enough signatures to put him on the ballot in all 50 states.
Political pros say Perot, who may pour $100 million of his own money into the election, could win a sizable vote - and seriously damage President Bush's chances for reelection.
It would be "a really first-class campaign, not a low-budget campaign," Perot told viewers in a C-SPAN interview.
But if he runs, Perot says, he would invite "ordinary folks" to put $5 each into it, so they would have a stake.
Keith Frederick, a Democratic political consultant, scoffs at Perot's chances to be elected, but estimates he could get up to 20 percent of the vote.
Most of that "would come out of Bush's vote," Mr. Frederick says. "It kills George Bush."
Ed Rollins, a Republican political strategist, agrees that Perot poses more of a threat to Bush than to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, especially if he drains conservative support in key electoral states such as Texas and California.
"I take his candidacy very seriously," Mr. Rollins said at a breakfast meeting with reporters. "He may be the ultimate protest candidate.... He could wreak havoc."
A Perot campaign would expose Americans to a blunt-talking candidate with a Texas twang and a penchant for action, not words.
Although he is wealthy, Perot has nothing but scorn for the get-rich mentality of the 1980s, which he says brought the United States to its knees financially.
In a series of speeches, Perot has laid out his case against Washington and against highly paid corporate officials.
He says: "We have government turned upside down, where the people running it act and live at your expense like royalty and many of you are working two jobs just to stay even."
Perot demands an end to government perks, like fancy gymnasiums for congressmen, free junkets for government officials, and even low-cost hair cuts.
Noting that government equipment belongs to all the people, he says: "I don't know why Dan Quayle needs to take my airplane, burn up tens of thousands of dollars worth of fuel, to go play golf.... Congressmen, as soon as Congress is out, go get an Air Force plane and fly all over the world on junkets and don't accomplish a thing."
He sizzles when asked about the Persian Gulf war, which he says was brought on by Washington bungling, including missteps by Bush, who helped Iraqi President Saddam Hussein build up his strength.
"I proposed that we have a war tax before we go into this so that all of us had 'skin' in the game," he says. "Isn't it bizarre that the only heroes from this war are generals and politicians?"
Perot scoffs at the notion that America is still a superpower: "Give me a break! You can't be a superpower unless you're rich.... We're the largest debtor nation."
He criticizes industrialists for sending jobs abroad. "Their job is to create and protect jobs in America - not in Mexico."
Perot's solutions would rattle Washington. Among them:
* Take away Congress's right to raise taxes. Any tax increase would have to be put on the ballot.
* Insist that TV stations contribute free air time to all candidates during the five months before election day. That would eliminate the need for big campaign contributions.
* Hold elections on Saturday and Sunday, when most people don't work.
* End all free transport on government airplanes except Air Force One, "and I'd put that on the question list," he says.
* Require all congressional pay raises to be voted on by the public.
* Require all laws on civil rights, disabilities, occupational safety, and fair labor standards to apply to congressional employees.
* Prohibit former federal officials from serving as lobbyists for five years, or 10 years in the case of lobbying for a foreign country.
* Slash all staffs, including the White House's, drastically.
* Confiscate excessive, multimillion-dollar executive salaries by imposing a 100 percent tax over a certain amount.
Perot has proved that he means business. In 1979, when two of his employees were seized by Iran, he organized a successful rescue effort - a feat celebrated in a TV miniseries, "On Wings of Eagles."
He is a graduate of the US Naval Academy and currently is president of his own computer-service company, Perot Systems.