Ross Perot's Legacy: Energized Electorate

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SOME in chairs, some at tables cluttered with empty soda cans, the exhausted volunteers from Ross Perot's telephone bank watched a rebroadcast of the day's rally here at Reunion Arena.

Drained, the group gathered at Perot's Dallas headquarters listened quietly as Mr. Perot talked about rebuilding the country. But the group found the energy to cheer when he broke off his speech to dance with his wife and daughters to "Crazy." Mocking critics, Perot had declared the Patsy Cline tune his theme song, in honor of the people he said were crazy enough to support his independent presidential-election bid.

"I feel like the return on our work will come over the next decade or longer," said John Battey, one of the volunteers watching Perot's final "infomercial" broadcast on television Nov. 2.

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"No matter who is sworn in to what office, they'll know we and every other voter will be on them like bees on a bear," Mr. Battey added. "Every public official is going to be held accountable."

The lasting legacy of the most unorthodox presidential campaign ever may be the re-energized electorate that Battey speaks of, one that includes thousands of new voters who believed that Perot gave them a voice and a choice. They are going to try to take the country back from special interests who they believe have gained control, as Perot drilled them endlessly.

"Perot attracted people who had not been actively involved in the political process," says Robin Marra, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Dr. Marra points out the "we'll do it tomorrow" attitude that had long gripped United States politics. The $4 trillion national debt, for instance, had accumulated "with the tacit approval of the American people." And Americans had grown so comfortable with the idea of two parties that candidacies from outside the party system were automatically suspected of representing a lunatic fringe, he adds. "But Perot made it OK."

Perot gave his supporters a sense of belonging to a legitimate cause through his plain-spoken appeal and his credible charge that both Republicans and Democrats bear responsibility for the nation's problems.

"I'm a true believer in his proposals," says volunteer Wilbur Bailey, who vowed never to vote a straight Republican ticket again. "He has the right solutions for today."

Near Mr. Bailey stood a mattress-sized goodwill card from hundreds of volunteers in Washington State. Not knowing how to ship their card, the volunteers turned it over to truckers, who talk to each other by CB radio. The card was passed from one to the next until it arrived in Dallas.

"Thank you, Ross. You have been the start of something big," read the message on the card.

That remains to be seen. Marra says that a negative legacy from Perot's campaign could be to show how difficult it is for third parties to get started.

"It was really a single-candidate campaign," he notes. Perot's volunteer organization, United We Stand America, has no chance of becoming a new party unless Perot stays involved. And even then it will need other candidates besides him to rally behind.

Perot challenged this year's candidates from the two major parties, Marra adds, but not the two-party system itself. It's a system in which money talks, he says.

The millions of dollars of his own money that Perot spent on the campaign gave him instant viability as a candidate. Marra notes that Andre Marrou, candidate of the decades-old Libertarian Party, was not invited to participate in the presidential debates because he wasn't considered viable, even though he was on the ballot in 50 states.

Marra advocates reform of campaign financing so that "almost anyone can challenge an incumbent. We have a country of a quarter of a billion people. We're supposed to believe that these are the best 535?," he asks, referring to members of Congress.

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