Ross Perot's sweeping appeal to the 1992 American electorate, as evidenced in a flood of polling data, threatens to shatter the strategic rules that have governed the struggle for the White House for more than two decades.
If the early strength of the Texas tycoon's as-yet-undeclared presidential candidacy is sustained, Republicans could lose states they have come to count on in the South, Democrats could suffer in their base in the industrial North, and Perot could win almost anywhere.
Both parties are scrambling to adjust to this altered state of presidential politics, which could compel them to rewrite their campaign game plans, target different constituencies and redefine basic themes.
"Things are all backward," complains Fred Steeper, pollster for President Bush's reelection campaign. "Perot has put us ahead in places we should be behind and behind where we should be ahead."
For example, recent polls showed Bush losing his adopted home state of Texas to Perot, while coming out ahead of prospective Democratic nominee Bill Clinton in such Democratic strongholds as West Virginia and Massachusetts.
Tuesday's primary results appeared to offer further proof of Perot's across-the-board appeal, even though his name was not on the ballot in any of the three contests. In Idaho and Kentucky, roughly a quarter of voters in both parties cast their ballots for uncommitted slates, totals which were generally interpreted as demonstrations of Perot support. And in Clinton's home state of Arkansas, the uncommitted category on the Democratic ballot garnered 18% of the vote.
More fundamental than the inroads he seems to be making within the electorate is the thematic challenge Perot presents to both parties.
Perot, as the prototype of the take-no prisoners, take-no-nonsense free enterpriser, appears to have co-opted--at least for now--the anti-government resentment that has long undergirded the GOP. In tapping into this visceral appeal, Perot's lack of government experience stacks up well against Bush, a career politician for 30 years.
At the same time, Perot's conspicuous contempt for established authority has allowed him to rob the Democrats of much of their populist thunder, which long has been one of their strong points.
Even more frustrating, from the Democratic viewpoint, has been Perot's embodiment as the most effective agent of change, a role Clinton had hoped to assume. Much as Clinton has sought to depict himself as an outsider who could break the gridlock in Washington, he can hardly get as remote from the root of the problem as Perot.
Watching Perot overshadow his final push toward the nomination has been difficult for Clinton and those around him. "It's frustrating, sure it's frustrating," Democratic National Committee political director Paul Tully said Wednesday in New Jersey, where Clinton was campaigning.
Still, Republicans have the most to lose from the upheaval Perot is causing in the political landscape, given that they hold the presidency. Indeed, GOP victories in five of the last six presidential elections--in most cases by comfortable margins--had led some political scientists to advance the notion that the party had developed "a lock" on the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
Some Democrats believe a Perot candidacy, if he can stay near current levels of support in many states that had been counted as "safe" for the GOP, would improve Clinton's chances of victory.
"Perot's presence pulls Bush off of the electoral Mt. Olympus that he would otherwise be perched upon, and deposits him onto a much more competitive level playing field," Tad Devine, a Democratic presidential campaign strategist in 1988, argues in the Polling Report, a Washington-based survey of political trends.
Others, however, contend that Clinton, in part because of the battering he took in his drive for his party's nomination, has shown little ability to take advantage of Bush vulnerabilities that the Perot phenomenon illustrate.
Polls in several states, in fact, show Clinton trailing both Bush and Perot, leading some Republicans to speculate publicly--and some Democrats to worry privately--that the Arkansas governor could wind up as the odd man out in a three-way race.
"To rebuild himself, Clinton needs exposure, and he can't get that because of the focus on Perot," says House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
As that focus intensifies, Perot likely will face some significant problems of his own. The maverick Texan and his strategists are themselves still groping for a way to consolidate and expand his support in the new political world he is creating.
"If he does the traditional political things, he undercuts his own strength as a nonpolitical candidate," says adviser Jim Squires. "The only thing you can do with him is let him go out there and do his thing and let the chips fall."
Bush and Clinton probably would gladly trade problems with Perot. And to a large degree, both of them are limited even in how they can undercut his attraction. If a less appealing Perot is to emerge, most analysts believe that Bush and Clinton need to depend on the press to produce that result.
Republicans caution that Bush would risk demeaning his office by attacking Perot. Clinton, meanwhile, is in a poor position to take on Perot while he is still struggling to establish his own credibility.
At the same time, neither Bush nor Clinton can afford to simply sit back and wait for Perot to fall on his face or unravel through increased public scrutiny. Interviews with operatives in both parties suggest a number of strategies for the two mainstream candidates to pursue, although each is marred by its own inherent problems.
The choices for Bush:
--Underline uncertainty. The President should let Clinton and Perot fight it out over who is the most effective agent of change, according to this theory, since Bush, as the incumbent, can only lose this argument. As a counter, Bush should promote the benefits of stability and the potential perils of Perotism. Bush's surrogates are already testing this gambit.
In a speech last week, House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois used the word "frightening" repeatedly to describe what the future might be like under a Perot regime.
But the effectiveness of this approach could depend on the robustness of the anticipated economic rebound from the prolonged recession. If economic indicators sag again, voters may prefer the potential dangers of the unknown to the all-too-real hardships of the present.
--Show off in striped pants. Most analysts acknowledge that foreign policy is Bush's strongest suit, and the forthcoming environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro and the July economic summit in Munich will give him high-profile opportunities to play his trump.
But again, a faltering economy is the joker in the deck. Without a strong recovery, Bush could again be viewed by the public as overly preoccupied with international affairs to the exclusion of concerns that affect the every day life of voters.
--Confront Congress. By sending Capitol Hill a domestic policy agenda built around conservative proposals for circumventing bureaucracy, Bush could strengthen his hold on the GOP's ideological base. And, if the Democratic-controlled Congress balks, as it almost certainly will, he could convert it into a whipping boy much as Harry S. Truman successfully did in the 1948 election.
The downside to this stratagem is that a standoff between Bush and the Congress could merely reinforce Perot's complaints about the gridlock in Washington.
The options for Clinton:
--Build black turnout. As some Democrats see it, this could be the decisive factor in the election, particularly in Southern states. Under their scenario, Perot and Bush would divide about 75% of the white vote, leaving the rest to Clinton. This, combined with a strong black turnout that goes overwhelmingly for Clinton, could allow him to capture Southern states Democrats have not won since Georgia's Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976.
Clinton aides even now are trying to develop the organization needed to get a large black turnout.
But some Democrats question whether Clinton can spark the type of interest among blacks needed to generate sufficient turnout by them without some dramatic action on his part--such as asking the Rev. Jesse Jackson to be his running mate. Conversely, any significant move by him to attract blacks to the polls could hinder the effort to lure white middle-class voters back to the Democratic fold.
--Share the limelight. Rather than attacking Perot, which might well backfire, Clinton should "engage in a genteel debate" with the newcomer over public policy, says Texas Democratic consultant George Shipley, offering Americans "two constructive alternatives" to Bush's record. By linking himself to Perot, Shipley asserts, Clinton could "legitimize" his candidacy after the harrowing nominating campaign.
The danger, however, is that Perot's performance would exceed expectations, allowing him to emerge from this debate as the real alternative to Bush while the Democratic standard-bearer stumbled into obscurity.
--Be specific. If he is to take advantage of the opportunities a Perot candidacy creates, Clinton has to make sure people "learn who Bill Clinton is and how he would lead the country," says campaign manager David Wilhelm. One way to accomplish this is by offering explicit and substantive proposals for dealing with public problems.
As a politician who has functioned most of his career as a one-man think tank, Clinton is better suited for this task than either of his rivals, neither of whom has shown much interest in the nitty-gritty of public policy.
But one reason most politicians prefer vagueness is that specifics can be risky. If Clinton lays out the sort of detailed blueprints some are urging, he would have to explain whether he would finance them with a tax increase or by taking money from other programs. Either approach could turn out to be politically costly.
Times staff writer David Lauter contributed to this story.