As Republicans basked in their limelight a few hundred miles away, the indefatigable Ross Perot took the stage at his own Reform Party convention this weekend, pie charts and all, and proposed to turn the tide in American politics.
Facing off with opponent Richard Lamm for the Reform Party nomination, Mr. Perot addressed a crowd of 1,500 mostly Californians Sunday night.
To Republicans, the Reform Party convention represented one cloud on an otherwise sunny horizon. Republican officials are increasingly concerned that a repeat of maverick Perot's 1992 election bid, when he won a surprising 19 percent of the vote, could spike hopes for a Dole comeback against President Clinton.
"Republicans really believe that Ross Perot put Clinton in the White House to begin with and that is what we are doing again," says California Reform Party leader Kathy Rus.
Some Republican leaders downplay the Perot threat this time around. And the fact that Perot faces a challenge for his party's nomination from former Colorado Governor Lamm, a Democrat, is seen as a sign of his flagging popularity.
But there is little doubt that Republicans are nervously eyeing the emergence of the Reform Party as a serious third party, which can draw support from much-sought-after "swing voters." In a Monitor breakfast, House Speaker Newt Gingrich at one point embarked on a noticeably harsh attack on the party itself, leveling accusations of secret Perot financing of its activities.
"Who pays for the Reform Party?" Mr. Gingrich asked rhetorically. "How much has Perot invested in this whole project? It would be a joke if a major party tried to do what they are doing."
Such attentions only delight Perot and his followers, who see them as evidence that the Reformists are hitting their mark in attacking the two major parties. "They're scared to death of us," Perot crowed in his speech.
Whether or not the Reform Party can match Perot's 1992 results, the GOP has to worry about the prospect of an attack on Dole's new economic program from this flank. If there is one issue on which Perot and the Reform Party have considerable credibility, it is balancing the budget. The Texas billionaire gained fame for his charts, showing a skyrocketing budget deficit, driven by entitlement spending that the major parties refuse to control.
Both Perot and Lamm are already aiming shots at the Dole plan, charging it will only serve to increase the deficit. "We must quit using tax cuts as election-year gimmicks to buy votes," Lamm told the convention.
Gingrich's remarks seem to indicate an effort to remind voters of Perot's reputation as an eccentric, prone to secrecy and paranoid accusations. Perot's vulnerability to such accusations has resurfaced recently with charges from Lamm that the party's election process has been stacked in Perot's favor.
PEROT doesn't discuss such image problems. But he indirectly acknowledged their existence by arranging a series of nominating speeches at the convention by several of his own employees, who delivered tearful accounts of his personal exploits on behalf of Vietnam War POWs, injured Gulf war soldiers, and others. "They were trying to restore his image as a hero, as a patriot," says Mark Sturdevant, a director of the California Reform Party and a Lamm supporter.
The decision of many in the Reform Party is propelled in part by concerns over Perot's electability. They cite Lamm's broader appeal to voters, including his championing of controls over immigration and support for environmental protection. "If the Reform Party wants to win, we've got to have a nominee who attracts votes from both Democrats and Republicans," says Yeh Ling-ling, a California immigration-reform activist.
Lamm and Perot agree on basic party themes: political reform, including campaign-finance controls over special interests; tough fiscal controls; and defense of America against unfair trade. But there's sharp contrast between Lamm's restraint and the bombastic style of Perot, with his attacks on government and corporations that obscure his position among America's super-rich.
"Perot's a more dynamic individual," supporter Shawn LeBlanc said at the convention Sunday. "Lamm's a politician - we don't want a politician,"chimed in her friend, Michelle Forbes.
Lamm says he will back Perot if he emerges the winner but he rules out a role as vice presidential nominee.
The Reform Party's approximately 1.4 million members will have a week to cast their vote by mail, phone, or via the Internet. Results will be announced at Part 2 of the convention next Sunday in Valley Forge, Pa.