Perot's Patriot Games

To hear Ross Perot tell it, this presidential campaign thing came on him like a Texas twister: sudden, unbidden, too powerful to escape. Last March 16, he allowed on "Larry King Live" as how he'd run if folks placed him on ballots. Lo and behold, the switchboards jammed. If he's "stuck" in the White House, it won't be because he begged for the job, but because America begged him. Especially these days, it's an attractive story: reluctant leader, urged to serve in an era when politicians are reviled.

There's one problem with the notion of Perot as Cincinnatus: it's not entirely accurate. Perot, a high-level political kibitzer for years, began seriously considering a presidential run late last summer. He told friends at the time that he was holding back only because, as one put it, "he didn't want to subject his family to the process." Last November he was greeted as a hero by grass-roots activists at a convention in Tampa, Fla. " I think that did it, " said Lionel Kunst, an organizer of the event. "He saw that a campaign could work."

By early January, Perot was hinting privately to some Washington-based politicos that he would indeed join the race. His longtime consigliere, Dallas attorney Tom Luce, began making preliminary calls to consultants such as John Deardourff, who had handled the media for Luce's own 1990 gubernatorial race in Texas. Perot commissioned an expensive and exhaustive state-by-state poll, which showed that an independent candidate--Perot himself wasn't named--could win. The stage was set. "That was no idle statement Perot made on 'Larry King'," said one Perot adviser. "He'd been laying the groundwork for some time."

Perot has always been more than an accidental phenomenon. No one with billions of bucks in assets could be otherwise. But "declared" or not, Perot the politician now has a savvy staff, a shrewd if unconventional strategy and a couple of confused foes. He's even with George Bush and Bill Clinton in some national polls, and ahead of both in California, Texas and several other states. Bush and Clinton advisers aren't sure just how-or whether-to take him on. "If this were a normal year I'd say he'd just fade away," said George Stephanopolous, Clinton's communications director. "But this isn't a normal year."

Ironically, Mr. Outsider is stocking his campaign from the leading pond of governmentalist insiders, the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Luce was a visiting fellow there last year. He's recruited "K-School" alumni James Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, as press secretary, and John White, a Carter administration budget expert and Kodak executive, to analyze domestic policy. Another likely enlistee is Harvard fellow Tom D'Amore, who managed Lowell Weicker's successful independent campaign for governor of Connecticut. D'Amore has called independents the wave of the future, the only hope for breaking legislative gridlock.

For now, the campaign will let public interest build through the laborious mechanics of petition drives. Squires describes this as making a virtue of necessity: " We're not sitting around planning what to do next Wednesday," he says. "We're trying to catch up with what we did yesterday." But the ballot drives are more than housekeeping. In each state they are being used to amass computer lists of supporters. Another Perot campaign adviser is John Aristotle Phillips, a brilliant developer of computer software for campaigns. With new computer and telephone technology--and the vast funds to pay for it-- Bush aides fear Perot could call each of his supporters regularly during the fall campaign. "It's scary," said one Bush aide.

Perot advisers believe that the best game plan is a form of east Texas Zen: an anti-strategy strategy of letting Ross be Ross. " The strength of whatever this is has to do with the natural personality of Ross Perot," says Squires. The campaign is likely to run town-meeting-style shows featuring Perot, experts and average Americans discussing key issues. Perot is expected to bracket the Democratic and Republican conventions with his own events: perhaps a birthday (June 27) announcement of his official candidacy, an appearance at an activists' convention in Dallas after the Democrats meet in New York and a Perot "convention" after Bush's Houston coronation.

Media inquisitors impatient to see detailed budget-, tax- and urban-policy plans from Perot may have to wait a long time--until after the election. Perot promised on May 5 that he would return to the American people in 60 days with more specifics than he'd been able to muster. And, indeed, his aides were phoning around the capital last week searching for position papers on diverse topics as they rushed to meet his deadline. But some campaign insiders caution against expecting much. Perot already has shown himself to be a master of stirring vagueness, in the Reagan mold.

And Perot and his aides are fully prepared to run against reporters who hound him for answers he says he can't give until after he's president. "You guys just don't get it," says another new Perot adviser, Frank Luntz, a 30-year-old Oxford Ph.D. who was Pat Buchanan's polltaker. "The American electorate is responding to Perot himself, not some seven-point plan." Marvin Kalb, who runs the Barone Press Center at Harvard, agrees. "It's going to be David against Goliath," says Kalb, "and Goliath includes Big Media."

A lavishly funded Perot campaign opens up a three-way race of nightmarish complexity across the regions and demographic groups of the nation. Perot's imperative, says one adviser, will be to pull votes in equal amounts from both Clinton and Bush-the kind of equipoise an independent needs to win. If Perot establishes a firm grip on Texas and California, Bush and Clinton will be forced into a mad scramble for states that neither would have considered in play. "Perot opens up the whole chessboard," says GOP consultant Paul Wilson. "States that have never heard from a presidential campaign are already being told that they are a priority this year. The whole country gets to take part this year."

Perot is enjoying a kind of benign neglect from Bush and Clinton. Bush himself thinks Perot is a short-term problem, too mean, too highhanded and too quirky to be a threat. "He's a kook, a hothead," said one top Bush aide. "Once the American people get a close look at him, they'll reject him." But the Bushies don't have an aggressive plan to unmask him, especially since they are convinced Perot is damaging Clinton right now by taking attention away from the Democrat. For their part, Clinton and his aides are leaving Perot alone, believing that he's drawing "Reagan Democrats" away from the GOP-and that Clinton will bring them home.

The best way for Bush and Clinton to counter Perot would be to radiate the same zest for leadership that he exudes. They didn't manage to do so last week. Continuing to quaver in the aftershocks of L.A., the president conducted more photo ops and began desultory negotiations with Congress over an "urban agenda" package. Clinton, returning to L.A., gave yet another of his earnest, polispeak addresses, this time about education. But he kept his distance from Capitol Hill Democrats, whom big-city mayors accused of ignoring urban rot. "Bush's problem rests with Bush, and Clinton's with Clinton," said Democratic polltaker Harrison Hickman. "If they can fix their own situations, and bring their own voters back, Perot vanishes." If they can't, Perot is getting ready-reluctantly, of course-to get himself "stuck" in the White House all three covet.

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Ross Perot's "outsider" candidacy could produce the ultimate insider drama: the choosing of the next president behind closed doors in the House of Representatives. If neither George Bush, Bill Clinton nor Perot wins enough states to gain a majority (270) of Electoral College votes, an arcane and complex system kicks into gear-a reminder that the Founding Fathers were indeed mortal. It has been used only twice, last in 1824. Some of the possibilities give life to the phrase "nightmare scenario":

If no one "wins" on Nov. 3, all eyes turn to the 1992 Electoral College. Being an elector is usually an empty honorific--but wouldn't be, this time. In many states there's no law binding an elector to vote for the candidate on whose ticket he or she was elected. Deals could be cut, and the results of state popular-vote totals ignored.

If no one ekes out an Electoral College majority, it will be up to the newly elected House to pick the president. (The veep is chosen by the Senate--and needn't be from the same party as the president's.) Each state has one vote: Utah and Wyoming have as much clout as Texas and New York. And though Clinton, say, may have run second or third in the popular vote, the House (presumably still in Democratic hands) would be free to choose him.

The vote would proceed state by state until one candidate got a majority. Under rules adopted after 1824, the House chooses the president in secret. That's one rule sure to change: an election "thrown to the House" might be a nightmare, but it would be the C-Span junkies' dream show.