Ross Perot said Thursday that his 1996 presidential campaign is effectively under way, and the response from his rivals showed that his talent for setting the political world astir is as strong as ever, even if his popular appeal is an open question.
Ignoring his sour poll ratings, Perot said he’s running again because “the American people want me to do this.”
Perot’s newly announced intention to seek the nomination of the Reform Party, which the Texas billionaire founded with his personal fortune, drew a prompt and negative response from presumptive Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole. “I would hope he wouldn’t run,” Dold told reporters. “I would hope it would be a two-man race.”
President Clinton and his aides publicly expressed indifference, but privately, campaign advisers saw, for the most part, positive scenarios for their team spinning from a Perot candidacy.
Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, the lifelong Democrat who himself announced this week that he is seeking the Reform Party nomination, said the movement Perot started “needs a new face” and a leader “who doesn’t lust for the office.”
Lamm vowed to press on with his candidacy. His defiance came despite the widespread - though not unanimous - belief among Reform Party state leaders and most other political professionals that there is no way he could beat Perot in what, as a practical matter, is still the “Perot Party.”
Certainly, Perot seems to see it that way.
Expressing his determination to do “whatever it takes” to solve the budget deficit and other long-term problems, Perot said on ABC’s “Good Morning America”: “If anybody should do it, I should do it, and I will do it, and I’m in a unique position to do it.”
Perot said he was merely following the wishes of Reform Party supporters at the grass-roots level. The presidency “is not a personal goal for me,” Perot said, but “the American people want me to do this and I have worked night and day for the last five years on this subject.”
Reform Party members will select their nominee in a week of voting either through the mail or e-mail beginning Aug. 11. Then the winner will be announced in Valley Forge, Pa.
If Perot is the man, many predicted he will find a less inviting electoral climate than he did in 1992, when he won 19 percent of the total vote. “His negatives are much greater than four years ago,” said Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster and newly named consultant to the Dole campaign, who added that Perot’s “rationale for running appears to be totally egocentric.”
DiVall said her numbers show that Perot hurts her candidate more than President Clinton, but probably not irreparably so. Of the total electorate, some 46 percent say they want a new candidate in the race; of the group who wants a new face, almost 20 percent say they back Perot. “That translates to 8.5 percent of the total electorate, and that is not enough to turn an election,” DiVall said.
Clinton campaign advisers agreed that a vigorous Perot candidacy is not as likely this year, but that what support he does generate is likely to come at Dole’s expense. Clinton, according to this logic, has over the past year and a half won back most of the disaffected independents who are ever likely to vote for him. Of the independents who are left, the vote now likely will be split between Perot and Dole.
A Perot candidacy could well “put in play” several states that would otherwise have gone easily for either Clinton or Dole, said one Clinton adviser. The problem for Dole is that just because a state is competitive doesn’t mean he’s likely to win it. For example, California is a state where Clinton is so far ahead in current polls that even some Republicans view him as a prohibitive favorite. Even if Perot takes some support from Clinton, Dole probably isn’t likely to win.
On the other hand, the Clinton adviser said, Texas is a state that by all rights Dole, like other recent GOP candidates, should win easily. But if Perot could siphon off some of Dole’s lead there, it’s possible that Clinton could win the state with a narrow plurality.