Texas billionaire Ross Perot is expected to re-enter the presidential race on Monday in a nationally televised appearance on the Larry King show, sources close to Perot said Thursday.
He has concluded that President Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton will not confront the economic troubles facing the nation, and Perot will "reluctantly" offer his service "for the good of the country," said an associate who spoke to Perot Thursday morning.
The prospect of Perot's return to the race adds a new layer of unpredictability to a campaign that has been marked by it all year.
On one point all analysts agree: Having shattered his base by abruptly withdrawing from the race in July, Perot has almost no chance of recapturing enough support to become anything more than a protest candidate. Beyond that, both sides acknowledge that Perot's precise impact is virtually impossible to predict.
"I'm sure the Clinton people are just as up in the air as we are," said one senior official in the Bush campaign. "We don't know what he is going to do, how disillusioned people really are and what you all in the press are going to do with him."
Some strategists think Perot could scramble the electoral map in key states such as Texas and Michigan and influence the fundamental tenor of the national debate; most believe he will not alter the basic dynamics of the contest and will simply resume the ride toward political oblivion on which he seemed to be racing before he jumped from the train last summer.
If Perot returns to the race, "his greatest day will be opening day," predicts Democratic strategist Tad Devine.
Perot began his jagged journey through the American political process on CNN's "Larry King Live" interview program on Feb. 20, when he said that if volunteers put his name on all 50 state ballots, he would run a "world class" campaign for the presidency. Five months later, he abruptly quit the race, saying he saw no chance of winning and didn't want to be "disruptive."
But in the last several days, Perot has called his withdrawal from the race a "mistake" and said that he would run if his supporters wished him to.
Over the last few days, leaders of the Perot organization around the country have been polling his volunteers state by state. By an overwhelming margin, they support Perot's return to the race, according to numerous volunteer coordinators contacted Thursday.
Perot is scheduled to meet with his supporters in Dallas on Monday, where they are expected to unanimously urge him to run. "There is no doubt that he will get back in the race," said Walt Peters, chairman of the Arizona Perot drive.
Network sources say Perot is also scheduled to appear on NBC's "Today Show" both Monday and Tuesday, and has been negotiating to buy a half-hour block of network time for next week.
One source close to the Texas billionaire said that on Larry King, Perot will give the Republican and Democratic candidates "one last bite at the apple"--meaning that if either Bush or Clinton wholeheartedly embraces Perot's political agenda, the Dallas tycoon would reconsider.
"Negotiations are still going on. That's what talks with Baker were about," the source said, referring to Perot's private meeting Tuesday with White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III at Baker's home in Washington.
For Clinton and Bush alike, there are many more questions than answers about Perot's potential impact on the race. Even a final decision from Perot to run wouldn't answer all the questions; as important as whether he runs is how he runs, strategists agree.
Former Perot spokesman James Squires--who is still on Perot's payroll--said that the computer magnate would rejoin the race not with the intention of winning, but to gain access to paid commercial television air time to deliver his message.
"He'll do what he has to do to get his ads on TV," Squires said from his horse farm in Kentucky. "If that means going on 'Larry King Live' and saying he's a candidate for President, then he'll do it."
He said that Perot would not conduct a campaign in the traditional sense. He would not travel extensively, subject himself to interviews by reporters other than the chosen handful of television personalities with whom he feels comfortable, or discuss anything other than his harsh economic prescriptions.
"He won't be answering any questions about whether he's toying with people's emotions or about his daughter," Squires said. He apparently was referring to recent reports that Perot had investigated a college professor who was dating his daughter.
Aides to Bush and Clinton are confident that Perot could not recapture as much support as he had before he quit. Perot's support may temporarily spike upward in the excitement of a re-entry into the race--Democrat Gary Hart's did briefly after he rejoined the 1988 presidential campaign--but most analysts believe the Texan will have a hard time holding even the 15% to 18% of the vote he now polls in national surveys.
At least three forces could put formidable downward pressure on Perot's support, strategists in both parties believe: skepticism about his motives and temperament; a resumption of stories questioning his business practices and examining allegations that he spied on family members and rivals; and the strong tendency of voters not to waste their ballot on a protest candidate in the presidential race.
"Independent and third-party candidates always score better in polls in September than they run in November because the reality that they can't win flakes off some of their support," says Richard Murray, a pollster and professor of political science at the University of Houston.
Those forces may be offset to some degree by the internal dynamic of the debate between Clinton and Bush: If, as many suspect, the exchanges between the two major-party candidates become increasingly acrid, bipartisan dissatisfaction could swell the none-of-the-above vote for Perot.
For the two campaigns, the real question is not how large a vote Perot gets, but whether he draws disproportionately from one side. Recent polls across the country show instead that he seems to be drawing almost evenly--taking just slightly more from the front-runner in most states.
For example, in some recent surveys, Perot's presence minimally diminishes Clinton's substantial lead in states such as California, Kentucky, Vermont and Minnesota--and narrows Bush's slim lead in Southern states such as Virginia and Mississippi. He draws almost evenly from the two men in Ohio and Florida, two tightly contested battlegrounds. In most of these states, Perot draws 10% to 13% of the vote, although he is running slightly above that in California.
The one state where Perot most likely would have a larger impact is his home, Texas--a must-win state for the President. Polls show Bush and Clinton locked in a virtual dead heat there, and a renewed Perot candidacy might give an edge to the Democrat, whose base in the black and Latino community is less likely to be attracted to the billionaire than voters in Bush's suburban strongholds.
Perot's possible influence on the tenor of the campaign in the coming weeks may be more important than his ultimate effect on the Electoral College, Devine and others note. His presence on the stage, for example, could substantially defuse the presidential debates if any eventually occur; officials at the bipartisan commission hoping to sponsor the debates said Thursday Perot probably would meet the criteria for inclusion.
Times staff writers Jack Cheevers in Los Angeles and Thomas B. Rosenstiel in Washington contributed to this story.