Barred From Debates, Perot Finds New Voice

Fresh resonance to call for reforming political system

Ross Perot is fighting for relevancy.

Lagging in the polls, the Reform Party candidate plans to file a federal lawsuit today against the Commission on Presidential Debates unless it reverses its decision to exclude him from the fall debates. Later in the week, according to his aides, Mr. Perot will petition the Federal Election Commission for permission to draw campaign funds from his personal wealth.

Neither bid is likely to succeed.

But Perot's significance may lie less in his absence from the debates and more in how the political system reacts to him. The debate commission's decision to exclude him from the presidential arena gives immediacy to his mantra about reforming Washington. He now has a new issue to exploit and spent Sunday morning doing so on NBC's "Meet the Press" and other news programs.

Indeed, Perot's exclusion from the process may further the public outcry for reform. While a scant 5 percent of the public supports Perot, some 57 percent of voters think he should be allowed to debate, according to a Newsweek poll.

"It is just one more sign of the whole irrationality and inconsistency of the current system," says Michael Goldstein, director of the Washington program of the Claremont McKenna College in California. "Here's a publicly funded candidate who is kept out. It leads to further public cynicism about the process."

Over the weekend, the Clinton and Dole campaigns agreed to keep Perot out of debates now firmly scheduled for next month. And the FEC, which monitors campaign finance, has specific rules barring candidates who take public funds from tapping their own savings accounts. Unless the FEC bends or Perot returns the $30 million he accepted in federal money, the Texas billionaire will have to leave his private assets at home.

This leaves Perot with a difficult choice. The scrappy businessman needs vast new sums to level the playing field in the final weeks of the campaign. Fund-raising attempts in recent weeks have produced meager returns. While tapping his own wealth could help boost Perot's competitiveness, it may also spell the end for his nascent Reform Party. That organization needs the public funds to bolster its credibility as something more than a vehicle for its founder.

Is Perot becoming a declining force in American politics? Perhaps. Throughout American history, few third parties or independent movements outlast two electoral cycles. This year marks Perot's second round, and it seems unlikely that it will be his better turn. Four years ago he focused the nation's political debate on the federal budget deficit. Until now, he hasn't had a clear, galvanizing issue.

But even if Perot stumbles badly and his Reform Party peters out, some analysts argue, his presence in the race is potentially important. His role as the voice of change may, in fact, grow.

"The process is going through rapid change," says Mr. Goldstein, "It is under pressure from an array of elite forces."

Those forces alone aren't likely to reform the electoral process. Leveling the playing field for third parties would require significant structural changes that only the government - and hence the two parties that dominate it - can make. The electoral college system, for example, would need to be recast, which would require amending the Constitution.

But the function of third parties has always been to focus the nation's attention on a particular issue that the two dominant parties are neglecting. Just as Perot laid the groundwork in 1992 for Republicans to champion the deficit, his exclusion from the presidential debates now may spark calls for reforms.

Fueling such calls is the growing influence of state primaries in the nominating process. The primaries are likely to be earlier and the process more expensive for candidates. Absent significant campaign-finance reform in the interim, candidates such as Perot or Steve Forbes - nontraditional politicians with lots of private money - may become more numerous.

And there is the media, which is becoming increasingly impatient with political events like party conventions that provide more show than substance.

If Perot reignites the public desire for political reform, these other forces may pick up where he leaves off.

"Perot did something important in 1992," says Charles Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin. "It is harder for him this year. The Republicans worked hard on the budget, and the public is satisfied with Clinton. But if Dole loses, Clinton will be out in 2000," and more candidates like Mr. Forbes will be able to push reform themes from within the two-party structure.

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