AUSTIN, TEXAS — AS Bob Dole campaigns for president in Iowa today, he will be rubbing elbows with a potential competitor -- Ross Perot.
The Texas billionaire will speak on leadership and the American dream to 2,500 attendees at the Iowa Future Farmers of America conference in Des Moines. Though it is billed as an inspirational talk, political overtones resonate more and more in each of Mr. Perot's public appearances.
''I don't think anybody ever knows what [Perot] is up to,'' says Brian Kennedy, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. ''He adds a little intrigue to the story up here.''
Because of its early caucuses, Iowa is to presidential campaigns what oil is to popcorn. Candidates visit frequently: Republican Senators Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana and Phil Gramm (R) of Texas earlier this week, Sen. Dole today, President Clinton next week. And Perot's visit raises suspicions that he may make another White House run.
Perot founded United We Stand America (UWSA) as a political watchdog group after his 1992 bid for the presidency, in which he captured a 19 percent share of the vote. In January, UWSA began to consider founding a new political party, holding more than 400 public discussions around the country. The process will culminate at a ''national conference'' in Dallas in July or August.
The major parties are paying attention. A representative of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky taped all eight UWSA meetings held in that state so far, says John Longmire, UWSA's Kentucky director. Senator McConnell is up for reelection in 1996.
Mr. Longmire adds that 59 percent of Kentucky's 350 participants favored forming a new party. Jim Hennager, UWSA director in Iowa, estimates that, nationwide, support is closer to 75 percent.
Expectations within UWSA vary widely. Mr. Hennager says a motion will be made at the June 11 meeting of UWSA Iowa to dissolve and reform as the state arm of the United Citizens Party. ''I can name half a dozen other names that other state organizations are working with,'' he says.
He expects the national conference in Dallas to attract 10,000 to 20,000 attendees. ''We've been told that we would know definitely by Sept. 1 what [Perot's] interests are,'' Hennager adds. He says Perot might choose to be the top or second spot on the ticket, or he might prefer to be the party chairman.
In case UWSA does decide to form a party, the Iowa chapter has offered to host a national convention during the February caucuses.
But such talk puts the cart far ahead of the horse, according to UWSA executive director Russ Verney. Despite high expectations, Mr. Verney says only a few hundred people may attend the Dallas conference. And he speaks with reservations about forming a new party. ''It may not be the quickest solution to their frustrations,'' Verney says.
He cites three problems. The party would have to undertake a huge petition drive to get on the ballot in every state. Once on the ballot, a new party would be able to field candidates for every office -- meaning it could become a ''target of opportunity for political wannabes who couldn't make it in the Democratic or Republican parties,'' he says.
Finally, there is the question of money. If UWSA members think Perot will pick up the party-building tab, ''they're badly mistaken,'' he says. By law Perot could only contribute $1,000 to any one candidate's campaign.
Verney also says there is the possibility of working with already formed parties. At least 45 UWSA members are running on the New Jersey Conservative Party ticket for seats in the state legislature in this fall's election.
Republicans hope to preempt that by convincing Perot voters that the GOP is addressing their issues, such as the balanced-budget amendment and term limits. Though both were voted down in the GOP-dominated Congress, Mr. Kennedy blames the Democrats.
Democrats are also staking a claim to the Perot vote. Mike Peterson, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, says that by 1996 the budget deficit will have declined three times in succession for the first time since the Truman administration. And the executive branch will have shrunk by 200,000 jobs to its smallest size since President Kennedy held office.
''These were all issues that propelled the Perot candidacy'' Mr. Peterson says. ''Most Iowans see that Perot had his best chance three years ago.''