WASHINGTON — LIKE opposing generals, President Bush and would-be president Ross Perot are lobbing political grenades at one another. As in war, both may get hurt.
In a broadcast scheduled to air tonight on ABC-TV, Mr. Bush reacts strongly to allegations that Mr. Perot had investigated him, as well as two of his sons, for impropriety.
"I don't think that's particularly American," the president says in a taped interview with Barbara Walters on ABC's 20/20. "If he was having my children investigated, that is beyond the pale," he says. "Leave my kids alone.... I am sick about it if it's true, and I think the American people will reject that kind of tactic."
Mr. Perot, in a press conference, fired back: "I do not spend my time investigating other people."
Perot called the charges that he had looked into the affairs of Bush and his family part of a Republican "dirty tricks" operation directed out of the Oval Office.
"There has been a 90-day effort to redefine my personality by a group called Opposition Research in the Republican Party," he told reporters. "They're generally known as the dirty-tricks crowd.... It has little or nothing to do with the truth."
Marlin Fitzwater, the president's press secretary, countered: "Mr. Perot's paranoia knows no bounds."
Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, says of this crossfire: "I think they are both injured in the process."
Dr. Mann says the president comes off looking somewhat "disingenuous." On the other hand, he says, Perot "is far from convincing" on the charge that there is a conspiracy against him.
There's already some evidence that the tussle may be harming them. A survey released this week by The New York Times finds that among 1,315 adults interviewed recently, Perot's unfavorable rating climbed from only 9 percent in April to 21 percent in June.
Things were no better for Bush. His unfavorable ratings rose from 41 percent in March to 44 percent in June.
Analysts suggest the principal gainer out of all this could be the third candidate in the race, Democrat Bill Clinton. While Bush and Perot chopped each other up, Governor Clinton was discussing his latest economic plan to revive America.
Clinton's focus on issues, particularly economics, during the past few weeks has paid off. The Times poll found that many more Americans (43 percent) were happy with Clinton's discussion of issues. Bush scored much lower, at 30 percent. Perot, who says he will discuss the issues in detail beginning in a few weeks, was down at 22 percent.
Yet the Bush-Perot feud shows no signs of abating, with the president, through his surrogates, repeatedly knocking Perot's reputation.
Vice President Dan Quayle has taken the lead. On June 12, he called Perot "a temperamental tycoon who has contempt for the Constitution of the United States." Later, Mr. Quayle charged that with "the IRS, the FBI, and the CIA under his [Perot's] control, who would be investigated next?"
Perot said Quayle's statement was something "Hitler's propaganda chief would be proud of."
As in many cases of political charge and countercharge, there is just enough evidence on both sides to keep the arguments going. Bush's assertion that Perot was investigating his children apparently stems from an earlier time when Perot passed along evidence to then-Vice President Bush.
Perot says a report on two of Bush's sons came to him unsolicited. It had something to do with the Nicaraguan contras, who were then opposing the Marxist regime in that country. On NBC's "Today" show, Perot explained: "I called him [Bush] father-to-father and said, `I have no idea if there's any truth to this or not, but I felt you should know this is going around.' He thanked me - end of story."
Although Bush now complains, the Washington Post reports that after receiving the information from Perot, Bush wrote him a thank-you note on Dec. 24, 1986. It said, in part:
"Dear Ross, Tomorrow is Christmas; ... I was very touched by your call(s) about my kids. They are all straight arrows, uninvolved in intrigue, and yet the rumor mill links them; and Ross it hurts 'em. You understood all this - What counts in life are honor, family, and friends - We Bushes are very lucky. These troubled times will pass but caring friends make it easier. Happy New Year - George."