The third-ranking Republican in the Senate, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, holds sharp views on Ross Perot and his role as a free-floating political activist.
``He is a demagogue,'' Mr. Cochran said at a Monitor breakfast for reporters yesterday. ``He's not to be trusted in terms of the way he characterizes facts about trade or the budget or government processes.''
Mr. Perot's antigovernment posture strikes a responsive chord with the public, but the popular businessman offers little more than an antigovernment posture, Cochran says. ``I have been appalled at the way he has gotten away with'' attracting attention by ``just being shrill.''
``It's a hoax.''
Perot will probably run for president as a Republican in the 1996 primary season, Cochran speculates, and the party will need to take him seriously. ``I don't think he'll win the nomination, but he certainly would be a very strong candidate.''
``At some point, he'll have to decide whether he wants to win or just keep someone else from winning,'' adds the senator, who is chairman of the Republican Senate Conference, the party caucus organization in the Senate.
For Republicans to pursue the ``illusion of getting too chummy'' with Perot ``is like getting on the back of a tiger,'' he says. ``It's clear that Ross Perot is not interested in helping the Republican Party.'' Perot has become a leading opponent of the free-trade pact with Mexico, which Cochran and fellow Republicans support. Public suspicion about what the pact would mean to American workers is running so high that the accord could be a difficult vote for many Republicans, he says.
``The grass roots don't know much about [the North American Free Trade Agreement],'' he says. But in Congress, NAFTA will not go to the Senate before passing the House, and key leaders in the House are either opposed or lukewarm about the pact.
``It looks pretty bleak now,'' he says.