THE evening after independent presidential hopeful Ross Perot first debated his rivals - incumbent George Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton - some of his Pittsburgh supporters gathered here in a small room. Seventeen men and women wrangled over what literature to hand out and went back and forth on whether to photocopy posters.
Two months ago, they didn't know each other. Now, they were plotting campaign strategy together. Or trying to.
"I'm so proud of these people," one woman confessed over the hubbub to her companion. "We are frustrated, but we are trying to make a difference."
"What you are seeing," co-chairwoman Domi Zinkan told a visitor, "is grass-roots democracy at work." Grass roots, indeed.
It is too early to gauge the impact of Mr. Perot's reentry into the presidential race. But it has reenergized his organization.
Local groups that lost contact with the state and national organization have reestablished communication. And this week's nationally televised debates are giving the Texas billionaire exposure to millions of viewers. Phones ringing off the hook
"Phones were ringing off the hook," said Mark Dzmura the day after the first presidential debate. Mr. Dzmura is a board member of the Allegheny County chapter of United We Stand, America, the grass-roots group that put Perot on the ballot in 50 states. At its peak, it had more than 1,000 active members in the area, he says. "I'm sure we'll reach a new peak in a week or so."
While his competitors have hit the campaign trail in search of votes, Perot is relying on television to get his message across. Last week, he spent $1 million to air twice a 30-minute commercial on the nation's problems.
The program's first airing attracted an audience estimated at 16.5 million people. Sunday's presidential debate gave Perot even better exposure. And pundits gave his plain-spoken performance high ratings.
On Tuesday, the campaign began airing a 60-second commercial, comparing the deficit to a "massive storm clouding America's future."
That same day Perot's running mate, retired Adm. James Stockdale, participated in the campaign's only scheduled vice-presidential debate. Pundits called it a sincere though less-than-impressive performance for the political novice.
Perot still has tonight's presidential debate and one more after than to make an impression.
The campaign is considering a 60-minute electronic town meeting on Saturday where he would discuss economic solutions with guests and take questions called in by voters.
The Texan needs the exposure.
A Gallup poll released Tuesday by CNN and USA Today found that Perot had only 12 percent of the popular vote going into Sunday's presidential debate. A post-debate poll by CBS showed his support at 12 percent. A similar ABC survey showed the numbers up slightly at 14 percent.
Ken Wagner, a Perot supporter and certified financial planner here, says voters need to learn more about Perot before they will support him. Karen Decker, a Republican-turned-Democrat in Kansas City, says her moderate Republican friends are not paying much attention to Perot.
"They stopped listening when he withdrew from the race," she says.
The Clinton campaign, in particular, has showcased former Perot supporters who have since joined the Democrats. At a recent Chicago fund-raiser hosted by Hillary Clinton, two former state-level Perot coordinators publicly asked him not to reenter the race.
John White, a former senior Perot adviser, suggests the Texan may still endorse Clinton for president. Mr. White is now a Clinton supporter. Grass-roots still thriving
These defections at the top aren't necessarily mirrored here at the grass roots, however.
"When he dropped out, I was one who said: `the heck with it,' " says a retired maintenance technician and registered Republican. But he's back again, passing out literature and knocking on doors. "I have never done anything like this in my life," he says.
Some of the local groups never disbanded at all.
Dee Kwiatkowski was a volunteer for the Perot petition drive here in Pittsburgh. When Perot dropped out July 16, the regional and statewide organization started to crumble.
Ms. Kwiatkowski and more than a dozen other local petitioners continued meeting weekly during the summer. The meetings were to chart a course for how members could influence local and district races.
On Sept. 11, after a lapse of eight weeks, Kwiatkowski found a phone number for a Pennsylvania statewide Perot organization. The following day, she attended the statewide meeting and became chairwoman of the Allegheny County chapter.
"If it keeps going at this rate, by the 2nd [of November] we should be exceptionally strong," she says.