WASHINGTON — TODAY'S political quiz: If Ross Perot gets back into the presidential race this week, as many expect, will it mean:
A. President Bush would be seriously damaged in Texas and Florida, which he must win to defeat Democrat Bill Clinton?
B. Governor Clinton would be badly hurt in California, where he currently leads Mr. Bush?
C. The Perot campaign would run millions of dollars of TV ads that could alter the campaign, particularly in the South?
D. All of the above?
E. Nobody knows?
If you picked "E," you're in good company. Political experts say Mr. Perot, the unpredictable Texas billionaire, could be cooking up an "October surprise," befuddling the best-laid plans of both Democrats and Republicans.
The latest political drama scripted by Perot begins unfolding today when, at his invitation, top officials of both the Clinton and Bush campaigns meet with Perot supporters in Dallas.
The GOP team includes Jack Kemp, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, campaign chairman Robert Teeter, and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.
Representing Bill Clinton will be his campaign chairman, Mickey Kantor, retired chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff William Crowe, Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma, and civil rights leader Vernon Jordan.
Then Perot will ask his supporters to decide whether he should plunge back into the race that he quit on July 16. Though he has been out of the contest for two months, Perot has continued to act much like a candidate.
He is on the ballot in every state and even has television commercials ready to air.
Perot's political strength, however, isn't what it once was. As summer began, he was challenging Bush and Clinton for the title of front-runner. Now he lags far behind. "He lost an enormous amount of credibility when he revved up this incredible movement and then pulled out without warning," says Earl Black, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina.
Cliff Arnebeck, a Columbus, Ohio, lawyer who led Perot's petition drive in his state, says: "We thought this was a true reform movement. We feel now that Perot is riding this thing to gain the presidency. He's very ambitious for the office and has sort of a Machiavellian plan to gain the White House."
Such disgust has turned Perot into an also-ran in the polls. A recent Newsweek survey showed Perot favored by just 9 percent of voters in a three-way matchup against Clinton, who gets 46 percent, and Bush, 37 percent. A Time/CNN poll finds Perot somewhat stronger: Clinton, 43; Bush, 32; Perot, 17. Even so, Perot troubles some Democrats, who see Clinton close to victory.
In an interview, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis, said of Perot: "I don't think having another guy in [the race] is helpful."
If Perot returns to the fray, pollster Del Ali sees him getting stronger. But Mr. Ali, a vice president of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research, says even with Perot back in, the race "is starting to look like a Clinton landslide."
The danger for both parties is that Perot could change the electoral landscape in unexpected ways. For example, if Perot makes a major effort along the Pacific Coast, he could cut deeply into Clinton's strength in the region, which is pivotal to Democratic hopes.
On the other hand, Perot almost certainly would damage Bush in the South. Political insiders say Perot is motivated, at least partially, by animosity toward Bush. He might put his greatest effort into undermining the president in states that Bush absolutely must win, such as Texas and Florida.
Perot says his motive is idealistic. He charges that neither party is addressing the most urgent economic problems, particularly the $300 billion-plus federal budget deficit.
Mervin Field, who has polled California voters for nearly 50 years, says what makes Perot's possible reentry awkward for the other candidates is that he has nothing to lose. "He has all this money, is free of responsibility, and ... can be a burr in the saddles of both Clinton and Bush," Mr. Field says. "He can say whatever he wants."
Perot can urge a 50-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline, means-testing social security, and closing down certain entitlement programs - thus embarrassing both candidates in nationally televised debates, Field says.
Perot can't win, say experts, but he can make the presidential race much less predictable.