The Perot Factor: Maverick May Mine Voter Discontent

Dole likely to take greatest hit from the Texas billionaire's campaign

He still has the military haircut, the pithy way of speaking, and the charts. But will Ross Perot - the official candidate of the Reform Party - still get the votes of a significant portion of the American public?

Some analysts don't expect Mr. Perot to garner nearly the votes he did in 1992, when he captured 18.9 percent. Even Perot admits that he and his supporters have their work cut out for them.

But the Texas billionaire could still have an important impact on the election.

Many analysts say he will hurt the Republicans in particular, primarily because he will be a stinging critic of Bob Dole's economic plan - the cornerstone of the GOP blueprint for reviving voter interest in the Dole campaign.

In addition, Perot's presence gives Clinton opponents another place to turn. "He will hurt Dole the most because Dole and Perot will split the anti-incumbent vote," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In fact, on Sunday Mr. Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp, slipped into Pittsburgh, in part to take away some attention from the feisty Texan.

But Perot is also expected to hammer hard on the failure of the Clinton White House to provide the leadership needed to refinance Medicare and Social Security.

In typical fashion, Perot has started where he left off - bashing both political parties and harping on his experience at solving complex problems "in a cost-effective manner." At his official selection Sunday as the Reform Party candidate, Perot hit all his usual themes: The nation's debt is too large; trade agreements are exporting jobs; and Medicare and Medicaid must be redesigned.

Perot continues to paint himself as an outsider, appalled at the influence of special interests. "I will be your servant," he told 1,500 delegates at a two-day meeting at the Valley Forge Convention Center in Pennsylvania.

In 1992, Perot's message resonated among many disaffected voters. Last week, an ABC News poll showed Perot with 11 percent of the vote. "I don't think he can get in double digits this year - the novelty is off," says Steven Hess, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

But Mr. Sabato says the early polls don't mean much. "We don't know how disillusioned the voters will be with [President] Clinton and Dole by November," he says. In 1992, he notes, the tracking polls showed Perot with only 11 to 13 percent of the vote. "The conventional wisdom has written him off as a spent force, but I think that's hasty," Sabato says.

Perot has announced he will accept federal campaign funds for his race. He is eligible for $29 million. But both major political parties will receive more than $62 million apiece. By accepting federal funds, Perot is limited to spending $50,000 of his own money this time around, compared with $60 million in 1992.

"Perot's secret goal this year is to get over 25 percent of the popular vote, then he will be treated as a major party in the year 2000 and you get a full increment of federal funds - we're talking real money even for Perot," says Sabato.

Perot has yet to decide on a running mate, however. There were reports last week that Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Ohio, turned down Perot's offer to share the ticket. Some delegates were carrying Perot-Powell signs. But there is virtually no chance that retired Gen. Colin Powell, a Republican who just last week garnered one of the coveted speaking slots at the GOP convention, would run with Perot.

Unlike the Republican conclave in San Diego, the Reform Party's meeting was low key. There were no sky boxes or special meetings for corporate bigwigs. Reporters did not need special tickets to wander among the delegates. No bands played patriotic tunes and no bundles of balloons distracted the participants.

In the Reform Party's version of a primary, Perot defeated former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm.

Perot's message continues to attract new people to politics. "I was always apolitical, but Perot impressed and I got involved," says Francesca Luitz, a Long Island resident who now hosts a weekly cable television show called "Independent Thinker."

If Perot were not on the ballot, Gary Battaglia of Fort Lee, N.J., says he would probably vote for Dole. "I'm an independent with Republican leanings," he says.

But Mr. Hess believes there will be fewer people like Mr. Battaglia than in 1992. "The Republicans are now offering a serious alternative for those who really want change," he explains.

The Republicans, however, aren't offering nearly enough change for Adrienne Stoughton, a Philadelphia resident. "I'm part of the ABCD group - Anybody But Clinton and Dole," she says.

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