AUSTIN, TEXAS — ROSS PEROT has relied on a costly television campaign to garner support for his independent bid for the presidency.
It is working. But with just over a week left in which he must rise from third place to first, the Dallas billionaire finally is doing what the other candidates did all along - hitting the campaign trail.
"We're going to continue to hammer home the message that a vote for Ross Perot is not a wasted vote," says Rusty Korman, a campaign spokesman in Austin.
Yesterday Mr. Perot attended rallies in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, his first appearances in person since officially entering the race on Oct. 1.
Until then, Perot had stayed close to Dallas to tape the half-hour commercials that have run in prime-time viewing slots.
Six have aired so far. Add in his 60-second commercials and Perot's spending on television has topped $17 million, of his own money. Ratings surprising experts
The broadcasts have attracted high ratings that surprise experts.
In earlier programs, Perot lectured on the decline of the United States by a broad measure of statistics, both over time and in comparison with other countries. His three latest broadcasts, which aired Thursday through Saturday, were an attempt to define Perot personally. When he summarily announced in July that he would not run, even many of his volunteers felt as if Perot must be the mercurial dictator that Republicans and Democrats alleged.
But taken together, his ads portray Perot as a caring man of action, someone who succeeds by motivating the talented people around him but who values family and friends above the resulting material success.
The candidate recounted his life story in the first and introduced his family in the second. The third was a series of interviews with people whom Perot helped in time of need. Some were friends who sought his help. Others were strangers whose stories in the media prompted Perot to volunteer assistance.
Typical was the story told by David and Gail Campbell of Pennsylvania.
Mr. Campbell's military unit was the one that was struck by a Scud missile that fell on Dhahran during the Gulf war. Perot made sure that the survivors got the best possible medical attention, the Campbells testified.
"When I think of Mr. Perot, I get very emotional. I have a lot of feelings for this man," Mrs. Campbell said." And I just know in my heart that my husband is alive today because of him."
Perot plans an additional prime time blitz on election eve. He paid $940,000 for an hour-long slot before ABC's Monday Night Football on Nov. 2. And campaign staff report plans for at least another hour of network ads.
Major polling organizations have found rising support for Perot, although his range of 15-22 percent still leaves him trailing incumbent George Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. But in Austin, Mr. Korman points to other polls - some offbeat - that have Perot doing far better. The polls were provided by Perot's campaign headquarters in Dallas. Offbeat Perot polls
A phone-in poll in southwestern Montana put Perot at 34 percent, 3 percent behind Mr. Clinton but leading President Bush. A poll in Eugene, Ore., found that 50 percent named Perot as "the best man for the job."
A "Hearing Aid Poll" in Pennsylvania found 52 percent for Perot. A poll of 200 truck drivers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey found 73 percent will vote for him. So will 42 percent of people polled at a California Wal-Mart.
"They might have taken 20 votes. They might have taken 1,000," says Korman, acknowledging the speciousness of the data. But since the results are what the campaign wants to hear, "we'll take it," he says.
Korman says his own faith in a Perot win has been so unwavering that the day after Perot said he would not run he tried to call Las Vegas to place a bet that Perot would be the next president.
Korman, a 40-year-old jewelry distributor, has himself never voted in a presidential election. He dismisses the major polls and the national media as slanted against Perot. "He still doesn't exist," Korman says.
The Austin office's second-biggest day of phone calls came after Perot called the media "jerks," Korman says. "People are tired of the press trying to influence them."
The poll Korman watches the most is General Cinema's nationwide "straw poll," in which moviegoers who buy a soft drink select the color straw they want according to the presidential candidate they prefer.
As of Thursday, Clinton had 41.4 percent, Bush 35.4 percent, and Perot 23.2 percent of more than a million votes. When the weekend's results are announced today, Korman expects to see Perot closing the gap.
Although Perot is bankrolling his national campaign effort, donations are rolling in at the local level. Korman says a retired investor recently walked in and wrote the campaign a $1,000 check, then took a seat on the phone bank.