WASHINGTON — LET'S look under the hood of a 1996 Ross Perot presidential candidacy.
First off, it looks as if the Texas billionaire may well run for the Oval Office again. He said as much to a San Antonio radio station on Tuesday. If nothing else, it's clear Mr. Perot means to play a big part in the upcoming election campaign.
But here's the rub: The man's just not as popular as he was the last time around. Polls today typically show him getting anywhere from 10 to 16 percent of the vote, as opposed to the 19 percent he won last time around. Almost twice as many people have negative feelings about him as in 1992.
Still, 10 percent isn't hayseed, especially considering that most potential Perot voters would otherwise vote in large numbers for GOP nominee Sen. Bob Dole. With his charts, his homespun wisecracks, and his deep pockets, Perot seems destined to bedevil Mr. Dole.
"Perot has the potential to be a factor, but not as dramatically as last time," says Mike Hellon, state GOP chairman in Arizona.
Few analysts are really surprised that Perot has suddenly resurfaced in US politics, just when Senator Dole wrapped up the GOP nomination and it looked as if the campaign trail would let down for a while.
After all, Perot's Reform Party has long been working on getting on the ballot in all 50 states this year, by a variety of means. Perot and his supporters have talked about holding a splashy convention in the fall, after Republican and Democratic Party meetings, to nominate a Reform Party candidate. And might that candidate be ... Perot himself?
"Let's assume the dust clears, and that's what members of this party want," Perot told a radio interviewer in Texas on Tuesday. "Then certainly, I would give it everything I have."
That last line likely sent shudders through the Dole camp, as "everything" Perot has includes a bank account as big as Texas. He spent tens of millions of his own money last time around, and many in the GOP leadership still bitterly blame Perot for costing George Bush the election.
Polls today typically show that potential Perot voters are drawn from the GOP camp by a 2-to-1 margin. "It does concern me," Dole said in a broadcast interview this week. "He helps Bill Clinton."
Dole said he would try to convince Perot that the Republican Party was doing its best to address Reform Party issues, such as campaign-finance reform and budget-balancing.
"I would say, 'Ross, what else do you want?' " said Dole.
It's an argument that might have some appeal among past Perot adherents. In the South, for instance, Perot's vote "is considerably diminished," notes Earle Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Texas. "Most voters here see the Republicans as the place to go to achieve their objectives."
The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows a three-way race shaping up like this: Clinton leads, at 46 percent, followed by Dole at 36 percent and Perot at 16 percent.
At the same stage of the race in 1992, Perot was doing much better than that, with more than 25 percent of the vote. Later in the spring, he actually led all comers for a short while.
One factor that might help Perot: His issues, in general, remain popular with a large segment of voters. It might be pragmatic to vote for Dole, but those who think Washington no longer speaks for them might find it hard to pull the lever for the Kansas senator. Perot is the ultimate outside-the-beltway candidate; Dole, for his part, has been holding many of his primary victory parties in Washington's confines.
"Dole is about as much of a political-establishment candidate as the Republicans could have constructed," says Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.
Further complicating the race is the fact that commentator Pat Buchanan continues to toy with the idea of running as an independent himself. A Buchanan spokesman said this week that faxes and phone calls to headquarters are running "15-to-1" in favor of Buchanan bolting the GOP. In three-way matchups, the conservative commentator does almost as well as Ross Perot.