Stunned Backers Seeking Answers To Perot Pullout

Incipient presidential candidate pulled out before making public his positions on issues

ROSS PEROT will try to remain a "moral force" for governmental reform, while many of his erstwhile supporters hope to become a "swing vote" in the presidential election.

Those decisions came out of meetings over the weekend between Mr. Perot and 30 state coordinators of the petition drives to put his name on the ballot.

The state coordinators hastily arranged to meet with Perot in Dallas on Saturday following the billionaire businessman's abrupt announcement Thursday that he would not become a candidate for president.

However, before the meetings could take place, some of Perot's supporters had already endorsed one or the other major-party candidates, while his volunteers in Georgia quickly transformed themselves into a new political party.

Those actions call into question the likelihood that Perot's supporters - who are said by his volunteer staff to have numbered 4 million - will remain a cohesive political force.

Since Perot never announced his positions, all that his supporters can be certain that they shared were enthusiasm for a Perot candidacy and dissatisfaction with the political status quo.

Now one of those two things has been taken away. Over the weekend, the state coordinators intended to read the just-completed positions to see if they provide a platform for unity.

"We don't have any candidate anymore, but we still have the issues," said Jim Davis, a volunteer from Georgia. On Friday, the Perot organization there formed the American Independence Party to address the federal deficit, American competitiveness, health care, education, and the income tax system.

"We feel like that we're entitled to have those plans that Ross Perot had people working on," Mr. Davis said. "The famed issues that he was supposed to be studying. We want that,... assuming that the suggestions are good."

Perot volunteers were aghast at how their captain had scrambled into a lifeboat while calling over his shoulder for them to keep bailing.

"You can't believe the personal sacrifice that a lot of these folks made," said Miller Hicks, an Austin businessman. As regional coordinator for the drive to put Perot on the ballot in Texas, Mr. Hicks orchestrated the parade and ceremony in which Perot turned in three times the needed signatures and vowed not to disappoint his volunteers.

Last week Hicks flew to Dallas expecting to be offered and to accept the job as state director of the Perot for president campaign. Instead, he watched as Perot delivered the stunning news.

Back in Austin on Friday, Hicks's volunteers told anguished callers to write or fax Perot to urge him to reconsider. Hicks said he didn't believe that Perot would, but he wanted to give the callers something therapeutic to do. "Turmoil" raged in the Perot campaign's Houston, Texas, office, said volunteer John McCorquodale. Callers "are not accepting this. They want Ross Perot or they want another candidate. They're very bluntly saying this," he said. Major backer upset

After helping to amass 55,000 petitions in Houston to put Perot on the Texas ballot, Mr. McCorquodale was personally upset that Perot pulled the rip cord. "I've been working here from nine in the morning to six or seven o'clock at night," he said.

But he would much rather vote for Perot than tar and feather him. "I still believe that if he was president that he could solve the deficit," McCorquodale said. "I really truly believe he will change his mind."

That wouldn't interest Davis, who now considers Perot to lack credibility. "If he came back tomorrow, I don't think the people would take him back. There may be some group of supporters who would, but I don't think the country would vote for him."

Davis, a Reagan Republican who hasn't forgiven Bush for breaking his pledge on taxes, worked on the campaign of Republican candidate Patrick Buchanan for a while. He switched to the draft-Perot movement after reading about it on the political bulletin board on the Prodigy computer network.

"Obviously I didn't know Ross Perot well enough," he said. Calling the almost-candidate's sudden decision "weird" and "irrational," Davis asked: "Would you want to let this guy have his hand on the [nuclear attack] button?" Quick move questioned

One question that tormented Perot volunteers was why their hero quit so soon. The mere aroma five months ago of a Perot candidacy had earned the active, dedicated support of four times as many people as voted for the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate in 1980, its best year. "It's just been a remarkable phenomenon," Hicks says.

Further, more than three months remain until election day. Perot may have been down in the polls, but that was to be expected because of the convention boost, Hicks says. Anything could happen - which is why Hicks and others don't buy Perot's argument that he had no chance of winning against Republicans and "revitalized" Democrats, and that therefore it was in the country's interest that he not run.

"I really felt that if [Perot] were going to drop it, [he] should have held off maybe to October," Hicks said. "There's no question that a lot more could happen." What, for instance, might have been the effect of a three-way debate? Of further revelations about Clinton or gaffes by Dan Quayle? Perot `just got fed up'

John McDonald, a retired Marine Corps officer who worked as a volunteer in the Perot campaign's Dallas headquarters, added: "He should have stayed a bit longer. I think that's the way we all feel."

Hicks's conclusion: "I think he just got fed up with it."

A remorseless Perot repeated his public stance on national television Friday evening. As for the sacrifices made by his volunteers, he reluctantly hinted at compensation on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats are celebrating, each in the expectation of gaining Perot's supporters.

"With Perot in the race, Bush was getting clobbered from two sides," says Fred Meyer, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas. "We had to do what we could to get it down to a two-person race. The Democrats said nothing but nice things about the third candidate in the race. It made more difference to us than it did to them."

With Perot out, Mr. Meyer says, Bush's reelection chances "have improved substantially."

Robert Slagle, Meyer's Democratic counterpart in Texas, disagrees.

"Most people leaning toward Perot are not willing to go back to Bush," he says. "Perot did us an enormous favor when he got in to start with. He legitimized for a lot of people who had voted for Bush in '88 that Bush's presidency was a failed presidency from the standpoint of jobs and economics."

"You've got two-thirds of Texans agreeing on one thing: George Bush shouldn't be reelected president," Slagle says.

Perot's supporters seem to be struggling over a decision that, five days ago, they never expected to face.

"I wish we had in blood a promise from Governor Clinton that he is as worried about the deficit and the financial situation as Mr. Perot is," says Mr. McDonald, the Dallas volunteer. "If he is, I haven't read it yet."

"It's one thing to say the right words at this point and another to implement them at this time next year should Mr. Clinton be elected," McDonald adds. "That's where everybody has a problem."

In Houston, McCorquodale says, "I haven't had time to get over this, much less think who else I might vote for. I want to support Ross Perot."

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