In a dramatic bid to revive his White House campaign, Bob Dole dispatched his top aide Wednesday to urge Ross Perot to quit the presidential race and endorse the Republican ticket, GOP and Reform Party sources said.
Dole campaign manager Scott Reed made the urgent entreaty at a meeting with Perot in Dallas, according to several sources who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Neither Dole nor Perot had immediate comment. Shortly before the meeting, a Reform Party source said it was highly unlikely Perot would agree to abort his candidacy. Separately, Perot spokeswoman Sharon Holman said she was not aware of any Perot-Reed meeting but said emphatically: “Mr. Perot has no intention of quitting the race, no intention whatsoever.”
Clinton aides cast Reed’s mission as proof of Dole’s desperation, and suggested the former Kansas senator was out of step with Perot voters. “We believe that on the issues that are most important to Mr. Perot - the deficit, campaign finance reform - we have a stronger record,” said Clinton campaign spokesman Joe Lockhart.
The entreaty was evidence of the deep frustration within the Dole camp as the 1996 campaign entered the final 12 days with Clinton comfortably ahead in national polls and enjoying a similarly lopsided advantage in state-by-state electoral vote counts. A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, for example, had Clinton at 52 percent, Dole at 35 percent and Perot at 6 percent.
In the view of some Dole advisers, a Perot endorsement could swing several states in Dole’s favor, especially in the Mountain West. Texas and Florida are also two traditionally Republican states where Clinton and Dole are running neck-and-neck with Perot garnering roughly 6 percent in the polls.
More significantly, the GOP sources suggested such a dramatic development would throw what has been a stable race into sudden turmoil, perhaps giving Dole one last chance to overtake Clinton. Ironically, it was Perot’s decision to quit the 1992 race just before the Democratic convention that helped boost Clinton from third place to first. Perot later rejoined the race, and ran third with 19 percent.
Dole decided to go forward with the entreaty despite Perot’s unpredictability and recent bad blood between the Dole and Perot camps. It was Dole’s campaign that insisted Perot be excluded from the presidential debates, drawing sharp criticism from Perot and Reform Party running mate Pat Choate.
Just what the Dole camp had to offer Perot was unclear; one Dole adviser noted the GOP candidate recently proposed a commission to draft a sweeping rewrite of campaign finance laws, and said perhaps Perot could be offered a leading role.
While surprised to hear of the entreaty, several Republicans suggested Reed would not have traveled to Dallas unless he had some reason to believe Perot was open to his proposal. But Holman’s comments suggested otherwise. “Ross Perot is in the race to stay,” she said.
Indeed, as Dole campaigned in Jacksonville, Fla., Wednesday, a small plane buzzed overhead trailing an American flag and the message: “Don’t Export Jobs - Vote Perot.”
One Dole adviser said Perot might be open to the idea because he is facing the embarrassing prospect of getting less than 10 percent of the vote four years after he was a major campaign force.
Of most urgent concern in the Dole campaign, the GOP sources said, was getting Dole over 40 percent in national polls so that he would be within striking distance of Clinton. When the ethics attacks of the last week failed to move the polls in Dole’s favor, the idea of approaching Perot was raised.
While some Dole aides opposed the idea, those in favor said Dole had little to lose at this point and a Perot endorsement might swing a few states in Dole’s favor.
Much of Perot’s support in Florida, Texas, California and Ohio was described by Republicans as from voters who otherwise would likely vote Republican - or at least be motivated to vote against Clinton.
Even if Perot were to endorse Dole, however, it is hardly certain his supporters would heed his advice. Even if they did, only in a few states would winning most or all of Perot’s support move Dole into the lead. And with the election a week from Tuesday, it is too late to get Perot off ballots.
In making an eleventh-hour entreaty to Perot, the Dole campaign implicitly acknowledged that its strategy has failed to cut into Clinton’s lead.
Dole has criticized Clinton as negligent in the war on crime and drugs and of presiding over an administration mired in scandals, focusing most recently on allegations of improper fund-raising from foreign interests.
Dole also has tried to earn votes by promising a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut even as he balanced the budget by 2002, and portrayed Clinton as a traditional tax-and-spend liberal hiding behind conservative election-year promises.
But Clinton’s lead has proven remarkably stubborn, and stable. Recent national polls show Clinton ahead by as much as 20 points; even internal campaign polls that use a tighter screen to reach those most likely to vote - a sample that generally gives Republicans a better showing - show Clinton leading by roughly 15 points.