Perot's Stock Rises as Bush's Falls

Hamilton Jordan and Ed Rollins on Perot's campaign team gives the Texan bipartisan clout, more respect

DISCONTENT and frustration in the Bush camp reached the point in the past week where insiders leaked pleas for strong new leadership of the White House staff.

But it was Ross Perot who signed on top talent from each major party to run his presidential campaign.

Mr. Perot's gains are coming in almost direct proportion to President Bush's political disarray.

When Perot signed on Ed Rollins, a top veteran of Reagan campaigns, and Hamilton Jordan, architect of Jimmy Carter's come-from-nowhere 1976 win, he was instantly granted a new level of seriousness by elite Washington opinion.

But President Bush - mired in the lowest approval ratings of his career - seems unable to point his campaign in a clear, compelling direction. The themes Bush was sharpening in April disappeared in May.

The muddling point for Mr. Bush was the Los Angeles riots, according to Republican pollster and strategist Bill McInturff. Mr. McInturff interviewed focus groups of voters shortly after the riots and was surprised at how people saw them as a blot on the overall Bush record.

Other observers saw the same pattern in Bush's speeches and comments. In late March and April, his campaign was coming into sharp focus around a consistent set of themes. He was honing a high-toned outrage over what he portrayed as a deeply corrupt Congress.

The riots at the beginning of May shifted public focus sharply to different questions - exactly the questions of urban spending, long-range vision, and Willie Horton-style politics that Bush is weakest on, says McInturff.

Since the riots, Bush has dropped an average of roughly 12 percentage points in polls. Perot has risen by almost the same amount.

Perot complicates the campaign even further. Once the Bush team had dispatched the upstart candidacy of Pat Buchanan, it prepared to run against a Democrat. Perot, however, will not be easily painted into a liberal corner.

The decision of Mr. Rollins, in particular, to join Perot is "a devastating blow to George Bush," says Samuel Popkin, a Democratic activist who teaches at the University of California at San Diego. He explains that Rollins knows the working-class vote that he helped galvanize for Republicans when he was Ronald Reagan's campaign manager in 1984. "Rollins grew up blue-collar and was turned Republican by the McGovernite craziness [in 1972]. He represents the solid middle" - exactly where Perot wants to be,

he says.

Mr. Jordan also has a "strong feel for the center" of American politics. David Gergen, a magazine editor and former Reagan aide, says a Rollins-Jordan team, like the lion and the lamb lying down together, offers the public hope of bipartisan government.

Each of the operatives has a broad network of contacts in party circles. As Dr. Popkin puts it, they have "two of the best Rolodexes in the country."

Rollins only recently was offered a role in Bush's reelection effort, and his wife Sharon resigned as a top assistant to President Bush - whose reelection she still supports - only hours before her husband joined Perot. Rollins called his move to Perot "probably the most difficult decision I've ever made."

But, he adds: "What's going on across the country is a political movement like I've never seen in 30 years of American politics."

Republican circles have let operatives know that anyone who works for Perot will be banished from party jobs for life. But Rollins fell out with the White House very publicly in 1990 when he advised GOP congressional candidates to distance themselves from Bush over tax increases.

With as many as 150 new members expected in Congress in January, Rollins says Perot could break the gridlock that has stymied action in Washington.

Jordan gave similar reasons. He says the two major parties would - at best - bring only incremental change to Washington. But with problems mounting and the budget deficit out of control, Jordan thinks that the nation needs "drastic" action, and only Perot can do it.

Political scientist Merle Black at Emory University in Atlanta says the idea that Perot could defeat both major party candidates can no longer be dismissed.

"This is an unusual year, and a very unusual candidate. The message from the exit polls was that voters simply do not like the [major party] choices," he says.

The struggle for a clear direction at the White House has aggravated the typical tension campaigns create between campaign staffs and policy staffs - the Bush-Quayle campaign and the White House staff.

One result has been more insistent rumors that campaign chairman Robert Mosbacher has called for Secretary of State James Baker III to step in as White House chief of staff, replacing Samuel Skinner. Mr. Mosbacher denies it. Yet such leaks represent the outcome that someone, if not Mosbacher himself, is seeking.

Mr. Baker's greatest asset is his stature as a winning presidential campaign manager, former chief of staff, and near-peer of the president with a long and close relationship. Baker, like few others, could settle turf battles and unlock gridlocked decisions.

On the other hand, unless Bush appears likely to lose the election, it is not in Baker's own interest to leave his post at State.

Political handlers can be overrated. Perot will not be easy to handle. And Bush's team may be subject to some scapegoating these days. "Everything was working for them a year and half ago; they were all geniuses," says conservative strategist Jeffrey Bell. "Now nothing is working for them. But they weren't geniuses then and they aren't idiots now."

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