ROSS PEROT is playing his political wild cards to the end.
His most recent explanation for temporarily abandoning his independent bid for the presidency baffles political analysts and may alienate potential supporters. It came at a time when Mr. Perot's political stock was rising.
"Independent voters...are going to watch this and scratch their heads," says John Jackson, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University. "I can't believe on balance that it will help the Perot campaign."
Perot unloaded his latest bombshell Sunday, saying that Republican dirty tricks forced him to abandon the race.
In a speech Sunday here in Pittsburgh, Perot said he got three independent reports that the Bush campaign was aiming to discredit him, including a plan to disrupt his daughter's August wedding.
Not wanting to ruin "the happiest day of her life," he said, he decided to drop out. On CBS's "60 Minutes," which also aired Sunday, he charged that the Bush forces had computer-altered a photo of his daughter.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called the charges "crazy."
Perot concedes he has no proof for his allegations. After bringing up the matter in his Pittsburgh speech, he told his supporters to forget it. He said "that's history. It's done. It's irrelevant to fixing our nation's economy, right?"
Even his supporters were hard-pressed to explain the zigzag. "Perot holds his family very dear," said Mark Coticchia, a local county chairman of Perot's grassroots group, United We Stand-America. "He needed to give some type of explanation because people really wanted to know" why he dropped out.
There were many reasons he left the race, added Tim Holloway, a dentist and Perot's southwest Pennsylvania coordinator. "That was the capsulated answer he chose to give.... I would have handled it differently."
It's not clear how these latest allegations will affect Perot's support. Pittsburgh was his second official campaign appearance. Earlier in the day, he held a rally in Flemington, N.J. Until Sunday, Perot had campaigned solely through television.
Supporters claimed that some 8,100 people turned out to see Perot - more than any other political candidate has ever pulled into Pittsburgh's convention center.
"Look at this," truck driver Walter Joyce said. "If this continues till Nov. 3, who knows?"
"I think there are a lot of silent Perot supporters out there," said Hallye Fetterolf, a day-care provider. "He's going to do great!"
Recent polls show Perot's support rising. The Sunday CNN/USA Today poll put Perot at 20 percent, compared with 41 percent for Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton and 30 percent for Republican President Bush. Other surveys suggest that Perot is stripping more voters away from Governor Clinton than from President Bush. A Sunday CBS News/New York Times poll showed that Perot's support had jumped 8 percentage points since the debates, while Clinton dropped 6 points and Bush dropped 3. A Times Mirror survey also fou nd the same pattern occurring.
But an informal survey at the Pittsburgh rally suggests that Perot supporters are difficult to pin down by party affiliation. For example: Of 13 people interviewed, all but four were either registered Republicans or had voted for Bush in 1988. That Republican majority is striking since Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County are Democratic by 2 to 1. But when asked who they would have supported had Perot not entered the race, four said Bush, four said Clinton. The rest were undecided.
What does bind them together is a distaste and distrust of the current political scene.
"The other ones are just talking politics," said Gwen Norris, an instructor who dragged her staunchly Republican parents to the rally.
"I think there are a lot of people who are completely fed up," said Ray Covert, a union electrician. He added, "Come election day, there's going to be a big surprise."