CALL him the Cheshire Cat candidate. Perched atop his multibillion-dollar business empire, Ross Perot materialized in February before American voters lost in a Wonderland of mushrooming national debt.
Just as abruptly, Mr. Perot vanished from the electoral landscape in July, when he concluded that his independent candidacy could not win against a "revitalized" Democratic Party and that the country could be harmed if the House of Representatives had to select the winner.
Now Perot may reappear in the race. He already admits that he was wrong to quit because, he says, President Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton have ignored the issue of reducing the budget deficit. But he will only run if his millions of volunteers decide that it would be best for the nation, Perot says. He will announce their decision tomorrow night.
Meanwhile, a new ABC News-Washington Post poll released Monday indicates that Governor Clinton and Mr. Bush will be running in a virtual dead heat if Perot runs. The poll showed Clinton with 44 percent, Bush with 39 percent, and Perot with 14 percent. In a two-man race, Clinton's lead over Bush was cut from 21 percentage points to 9 points, 51 percent to 42 percent.
If the grin he has displayed to the press and talk-show audiences is any clue, Perot knows the volunteers' answer. "Most everybody is behind Perot," says Gerre Ferrell, Arkansas state treasurer of United We Stand, America (UWSA), the anti-deficit movement spawned by Perot's quasi-candidacy. "I don't think our volunteers would go along with his endorsing either candidate."
But that possibility is getting at least a token hearing. In an unprecedented action Monday, envoys of Governor Clinton and Mr. Bush addressed Perot and UWSA state coordinators in Dallas. Each side touted its economic program as being closest to the one drafted by Perot's advisers.
"I want people to look at those two economic programs and ask a simple question: Which program enhances my well-being? I believe when people do that, George Bush is going to win," Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas told reporters afterward.
But Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas found "wide areas of agreement between Bill Clinton and Ross Perot."
David McKinley, a Texas Perot volunteer, said that "unless the two parties adopt Perot's economic plan, I'm voting for Perot." Although he lost his job, Mr. McKinley says he's more worried about the billion-dollar daily increase in the national debt.
Said James Smith, head of Mississippi's UWSA: "All the coordinators want to see Perot run for president, but if there is a better option, we will choose that." The coordinators met alone with Perot after the presentations, then returned home to brief volunteers there.
A delighted Perot called the sessions "democracy at its finest. We were down in the trenches talking about a level of detail that's tough to get to in a television sound bite," he said, urging that the media "go into saturation-bombing on the issues" and avoid discussions of personality. Perot said the sessions confirmed the validity of his electronic-town-hall concept, even though UWSA allowed envoys to exclude media to allow "freer and open discussion," as Bush campaign chairman Robert Teeter put it.
Despite Perot's depiction of UWSA as a grass-roots organization whose decisions are made by the volunteers and passed upward, local volunteers have complained that the group is managed in a rigid top-down fashion by people appointed by Perot.
Rick Pamplin, for one, was bewildered by UWSA's behavior during Sept. 28 sessions. Mr. Pamplin hadn't voted in four years, but actively recruited support for Perot's campaign. When his local newspaper, the Antelope Valley (Calif.) Press, speculated that Pamplin himself would run as a pro-Perot independent candidate for California's new 25th congressional district, he allowed himself to be drafted and quickly got the 12,000 signatures needed. Now, Pamplin says, the race is a three-way dead heat even though he has spent under $4,000, compared to $400,000 and $120,000 by his respective Republican and Democratic opponents.
When Pamplin got word of the Dallas gathering, he drove 30 hours to bring Perot and the state coordinators a report from the field: "This platform will fly." The members of his district, he says, don't need to hear from the other parties. They're ready to vote for Perot and make the sacrifices his program requires.
But Pamplin was excluded from the economic briefings. After being tossed out of one press conference, he got credentials from the National Enquirer so he could attend the others. His experience made him wonder if there was a hidden agenda. "This is how they treat a congressional candidate?" Pamplin marveled. "Why wouldn't they embrace me? I just want to know if this is real or a circus for the media." -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/92/sep/day30/30013.