Perot: Pulling The Race Out Of The Mud

For 48 hours last week, Ross Perot was on a roll. He won the first presidential debate. His "infomercial"--a kind of truth-or-dare on the economy--drew high ratings. Washington pundits speculated on whether he could take off and perhaps affect the outcome of the presidential race. Then, in a condensed version of last spring and summer, the latest flirtation with Perot bumped up against reality. Perot's running mate, Adm. James B. Stockdale, faltered in the vice presidential debate, reminding voters of the improbability of their ticket. By the time Perot left the stage after the second presidential debate in Richmond, there was no pretending. Though he inched up in NEWSWEEK's Poll, he had about as much chance of being elected the next president as Madonna.

Maybe Perot has been telling the truth all along, that he doesn't really want to be president. What counts is his reputation, which was sorely damaged after his abrupt withdrawal from the race last July. He is spending millions on TV ads so he can look into the shaving mirror and not see a quitter. Perot's one-liners on the economy are beginning to sound like a stand-up comedy routine; he needs new material. But by focusing attention on the deficit, Perot has helped elevate the last stage of a race that might otherwise have been preoccupied entirely with mudslinging.

Perot has been a reluctant warrior for his own program. He could have avoided criticism of his second debate performance if he had gone beyond one-liners to stress solutions. In his latest infomercial Perot's sober twin emerges. Grim-faced, he urges further taxing of social-security benefits, higher Medicare premiums and increased gasoline taxes. Yet with the exception of the gas tax (50 cents a gallon over five years), he glides over his proposals so quickly that they get lost in the shuffle of pie charts and bar graphs. He spends little time bracing those who will lose benefits. This is Stone Age television, yet it is oddly riveting. Perot sits at a desk with a "voodoo stick" pointer, a play on voodoo economics, while the charts pile up along with the bad news.

Perot must be wondering what might have been had he not acted so impetuously last July. Only three weeks before he withdrew, some polls showed him leading in a three-way race. NEWSWEEK has learned that Perot flew to Washington at that time, undetected by the press, to meet with Dr. Bernadine Healy, head of the National Institutes of Health, who he had hoped would be his running mate. (Stockdale was meant to be a stand-in.) Healy, a Republican and a Bush appointee, ultimately turned him down. But as Stockdale struggled on the stage to hold his own last week, the thought of Healy-a brilliant heart specialist and an articulate advocate for women's health issues-must have given Perot a what-if pang.

With his re-entry into the race, Perot is trying to recapture those heady early days when the faithful treated him like a rock star. But running for office takes more than revving up volunteers. " Dad is on a very steep learning curve on how to be a politician," says Ross Perot Jr. If the cold war were not over, Perot would never have been taken seriously as a candidate: his mercurial temperament would have labeled him as someone who could not be trusted with his finger on the button. Even so, Perot can still play a leadership role in the economic battles of the '90s: his warnings about the deficit may make it easier for the next president to get the country to swallow some tough economic medicine.