Ever since Ross Perot left the presidential campaign trail last July, his supporters in Orange County have been working for the day when he might return.
Earlier this week, Perot's Irvine office--which has remained open all summer--sent a fax to the defunct campaign's home base in Dallas. It stretched 65 feet long and included thousands of signatures from Orange County residents encouraging his candidacy.
Now, those die-hard loyalists are convinced their pleas have been heard as rumors swirl through the nation that the Texas billionaire is about to return to the race. Already, the Orange County volunteers say their office is returning to the frenzied activity it saw during the campaign's heyday.
"They're coming in here in droves," said Marshall Norris, a retired Sheriff's Department lieutenant who has managed the Irvine office through the summer. "We're all very euphoric. We know he is going to come back and there is just quite a feeling among everyone here."
In a recent television interview that Perot supporters have happily shared with their fellow volunteers, the Texan said his July 16 announcement to withdraw from the presidential race--before he had even officially entered--was a mistake. Since then, sources close to Perot said the computer magnate has decided to announce his re-entry to the race on Monday.
The momentum in Orange County, however, has been building for nearly a month, organizers said. Last week, more than 80 people stood at a busy commuter intersection in Orange waving Perot signs at passing motorists. Friday, the office did the same at intersections in El Toro and Whittier.
And it was already planning a car rally for Monday to celebrate Perot's expected announcement.
"It's really been picking up in the last few weeks," said Mike Altman, chairman of the Orange County Perot campaign. "You'd really think the whole world has turned around. And it has."
Altman, a former Air Force sergeant from Tustin, is one of many Perot supporters who dedicated their energy and hopes to the campaign last spring and who felt betrayed when Perot dropped his bid. In fact, an angry Altman called Perot a "bozo" on national network news programs the next day.
"I'm like everybody else; I'm a 12-year-old," he said. "I pouted, I kicked the dog and scratched my head. Then I tried to figure out what we were trying to do here. Really, Perot was not a scientist who created something. He was in the right place at the right time, saying something people already knew to be true."
"This is issues, not individuals--that's our motto," said Altman, a self-described Ronald Reagan Democrat.
Dottie Campbell, a Perot volunteer from Laguna Hills, said she still is concerned that Perot could enter the race only to drop out and support one of the remaining candidates. But she also said that the focus on issues and no-nonsense campaign talk by Perot has given her a refreshing outlook on the presidential election.
"I haven't voted for someone for a long time, I've usually voted against someone," said Campbell, a registered Republican. "It will be very nice in this election to vote for our President."
Political strategists are still evaluating what impact Perot would have on the campaign if he re-enters.
Friday, local leaders for Clinton and the campaign for President Bush said they are uncertain how the dynamics of the race might change. But they believe Perot will have less support than he did last spring and that he will not be a contender for the White House.
"I think this is a big question mark that everyone is experiencing," said Bill Noble, Orange County coordinator for the Bush campaign. He added, however: "When I first took this job in June and Perot was in, I was a lot more nervous than I am now."
Howard Adler, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party, had a similar perception.
"It changes the equation, but I don't know how," he said. "But it's not a three-way race, in my opinion. I don't think he will decide the outcome."
Things really started to pick up in the Irvine Perot office last Tuesday when officials received a notice from the Dallas headquarters to launch a survey of their volunteer list and determine the degree of support for Perot's return to the campaign.
Immediately, volunteers began phoning some of the 8,740 Orange County names still on the computerized list of supporters. After more than 3,000 phone calls, Orange County officials said they knew the answer was resoundingly positive.
Perot headquarters throughout the country made similar surveys and also reportedly found strong support.
The telephone survey was also intended to identify a prospective running mate for Perot. In Orange County, the top vote-getter was former Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, leader of the American forces in the Persian Gulf.
Now, Altman said, the Perot campaign will switch to the "perspiration stage." Orange County generated 190,000 signatures to put Perot's name on the ballot in California and, Altman said, that was good basic training for the upcoming campaign.
"We know how to do this part; we are going back to the streets," he said. "There is no way everybody in this county will not meet a Perot-ista."