Ross Perot reiterated his threat to re-enter the presidential race this week, seeking to influence the campaign policy debate and force President Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton to address runaway federal budget deficits that he says are strangling the nation's economy.
And, in an interview with The Times, Perot held out the possibility that his political organization--United We Stand, America--might endorse Clinton if the Democratic presidential nominee seriously confronts the politically explosive deficit.
Thus far, Bush and Clinton both have sidestepped detailed discussions of the deficit because any realistic program to reduce it would require unpopular tax increases and spending cuts. Moreover, Bush would encounter questions about the national debt skyrocketing from $1 trillion to $4 trillion during the 12 years that he and former President Ronald Reagan have occupied the White House, despite Reagan's promise to balance the budget in his first term.
Perot, who has harshly criticized the Bush Administration for ignoring the issue, took repeated swipes at the President, saying the Bush campaign has failed in a misguided and "backwards" attempt to recruit Perot supporters around the country.
Asked about former Texas Gov. John B. Connally's comment during the Republican National Convention last month that Perot might eventually endorse Clinton, the Texas billionaire said: "It's not me endorsing anybody; it would be our organization, United We Stand, America."
Connally, a Democrat-turned-Republican who served as Treasury secretary during the Richard M. Nixon Administration and a harsh critic of Bush, served as a Perot adviser during the Texas businessman's short-lived presidential campaign.
Perot announced nine weeks ago that he would not be a candidate, saying that since the Democratic Party had "revitalized" itself, he concluded he could not win the election. He also said it would be disruptive to the country for him to remain in the race because he might win enough electoral votes to throw the election into the House of Representatives.
Nonetheless, Perot continued to finance his followers' efforts to gather signatures to qualify him for the ballot in the states. He contended this would let the candidates "know the names and addresses of all the people who are not happy with the way things are today."
Now, after spending an estimated $18 million and collecting more than 5 1/2 million signatures in his bid to qualify in all 50 states, Perot is under increasing pressure from supporters to announce as a candidate.
Among those pressing him is Orson Swindle, a former Reagan Administration official who heads United We Stand, America. Swindle, who lives in Hawaii, said he told Perot: "I'm convinced now that George Bush is going to lose the election, and we don't want to hand it to Clinton. You've got to go for it.
"He listened to me carefully and I know he would make a hell of a President," said Swindle, who served as assistant secretary of commerce for economic development from 1985 to 1989. "But I don't know what he'll do. He says he belongs to his volunteers, so he's got a crossroads in front of him in a few days because Arizona will become the 50th state where he'll be qualified to be on the ballot."
Arizona Perot supporters plan to submit their petitions Friday.
Perot says that considering the huge swing vote his followers represent, Bush and Clinton would be "unrealistic" to continue to ignore the deficit issue. If they do, he said, he will announce his candidacy.
He said this would require a meeting involving Swindle and all 50 state coordinators of his organization. "If they said yes, go to it, then we'd do it," Perot said. "If that happens, it will be a tremendous failure on the part of both established parties. If I have to get in, I'll certainly be running to win in November."
Recent polls have shown that as a non-candidate, Perot still draws the support of between 15% and 20% of voters. At one time he led both Bush and Clinton in early summer polls, but by July, when he dropped out, his support had fallen below 20% and Bush and Clinton each were favored by more than 30%.
A Washington Post/ABC News nationwide poll released Tuesday showed 16% of those likely to vote in November say they still plan to vote for Perot. With the choice between Clinton and Bush, the poll showed the governor with a 54% to 39% lead. With Perot taking 16%, Clinton led 45% to 33%. A Los Angeles Times Poll, also released Tuesday, showed Perot with 17% in California, but Clinton's lead stood at 21 points with or without Perot in the race.
Perot said the Bush campaign has "tried everything and tried everywhere" but has had little success in recruiting his supporters. "They do it backwards and try to lure people with access to power. You have to lure them with a good program for the country.
"They don't understand; they're so remote. The way you get these people to support you is to face the issues."
Earlier, officials of the Perot organization said the Bush campaign, in trying to recruit the organization's 57 county coordinators in Alabama, had offered to have Vice President Dan Quayle meet with them. There were no takers.
Swindle said Quayle staffers also engaged in a relatively unsuccessful campaign to recruit Perot supporters in other states. "It's a total farce," he said. "They're going around warning people that if they don't go with Bush, they're giving the election to Bill Clinton. It's desperation and shows the weakness of the Bush team."
Before the President's recent visit to Missouri, Swindle said, the Bush campaign recruited four "former Perot supporters from earlier days," including one from Kansas, and had them meet with Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft to portray Perot supporters as defecting to the Republicans.
"They paraded them all over the state that weekend, saying they were part of the Perot crossover," Swindle said. "It was a total sham."