WASHINGTON — WHAT'S the secret of Ross Perot's rocket ride to the top of the presidential polls?
Political scientist Samuel Popkin says Mr. Perot obviously has one big thing going for him - his wealth: "I take all billionaires seriously," Dr. Popkin says.
Yet Perot's billions hardly explain his first-place showing in political surveys in Texas, California, and Ohio. Nor do they account for the starry-eyed enthusiasm of Perot boosters in all 50 states.
Analysts say two coincidental factors are making Perot the hottest political property since Ronald Reagan hit the national political stage more than 25 years ago.
Factor 1 is the surprising weakness of the two major-party candidates. Pollster Mark DiCamillo in San Francisco says George Bush and Bill Clinton are held in "unusually low regard" by voters. That has created a political void, and Perot has rushed in. "A lot of the hopes of the voters are resting on Perot's candidacy right now," Mr. DiCamillo says.
Factor 2 is the economy. Key industries, from autos to electronics to construction, are mired in deep problems.
The White House talks about a recovery, but voters are skeptical. They've seen too many of the best jobs leaving the United States for Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Mexico. They don't see their leaders doing anything about it except talk.
Into this atmosphere of self-doubt and concern strides Perot, a former IBM salesman and self-made billionaire who inspires hope and confidence.
Perot has competed with foreign rivals and won. His businesses have created good-paying jobs. Voters say: "Here's a Texan who talks straight and backs up his words with action."
When California voters were asked why they supported Perot, the largest number (69 percent) told pollster Mervin Field that if he were elected, Perot's business experience "would help him strengthen our nation's econ-omy." Even President Bush's supporters in California, by better than 2 to 1, say Perot's election would create US jobs.
Perot has fueled that perception. He complains that Mr. Bush is letting jobs slip away to other nations. Without a strong job base, US tax collections are eroding, the $3 trillion federal debt is growing, and the federal deficit is spinning out of control. Perot vows that his first order of business would be to create good jobs.
As the major parties jockey for position prior to their national conventions, experts say Perot is being temporarily helped by something else, as well: his political independence.
Neither a Republican nor a Democrat, Perot represents a sharp break with the failed partisan politics of gridlock in Washington. The Los Angeles Times polled 1,469 voters in mid-May and found that the main reason people supported Perot was that he "represents change."
This desire for something new is well understood in Washington. Even Bush vows to be an agent of change if reelected. Bill Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, promises to go to Washington with a new broom.
But in the public's eye, Perot would be the freshest start. His twangy, East Texas accent and entrepreneurial background sharply separate him from Bush and Clinton. His irreverent comments about Washington signal to angry voters that he won't be "just another politician." His message - give government back to the people - has struck a chord with Americans.
As DiCamillo explains: "The view among Californians is that there will not be a great amount of difference between Bush and Clinton.... At the base of this view is the ineffectiveness of government, of not being able to do things. What voters are saying is they hear platitudes and issue positions [from politicians], but nothing is done.
"No change in the deficit, no health-care package, no deeds. Just words. Perot says ... we need to overhaul the system, and that is a view shared by the public."
Despite his wealth, Americans generally believe that he is concerned about issues that are "most important to the average citizen like me." Californians hold that view by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
Though Perot has little government experience, Californians say that really doesn't matter. They still think he is well equipped to do the job of president. Washington insiders often scoff at Perot, suggesting that his temperament - supposedly thin-skinned, arrogant - won't wear well. Voters overwhelmingly reject that analysis by a 4-to-1 margin.
Yet DiCamillo wonders whether Perot will wear well, once he is better known. He observes that in the California poll, only 22 percent of the voters said they knew much about Perot, yet he got 39 percent support.
"It demonstrates the hopes they are casting on this man. [They] will be hard to fulfill," he says.