President Bush and Democratic rival Bill Clinton will send senior emissaries to a Monday meeting with Ross Perot and his supporters in Dallas in an effort to court them and to try to influence the Texas billionaire's political plans, officials of both campaigns said Friday.
Publicly, several Democratic and Republican officials said Friday that they do not care whether Perot enters the presidential race, and they would not try to alter his actions. But privately, the officials said they hope Perot and his supporters will conclude that their particular candidate has a workable plan for correcting the nation's economic problems and that it is not necessary for him to become a candidate.
Spokesmen for both campaigns, fearful of alienating millions of potential Perot voters, insisted they would not explicitly ask the businessman not to seek the presidency.
In fact, one senior Bush adviser suggested that a Perot candidacy could help the President reverse his sagging political fortunes. As a result, the adviser said, some of Bush's top aides are secretly hoping that Perot will rejoin the campaign.
"We were doing better when he was in the race," the Bush adviser said.
He added that he believed Perot had already decided to run, and "we don't expect that we will change his mind."
A source close to Bush, meanwhile, said the Republicans would welcome "anything to change the dynamic of this race."
Virtually all national polls have shown Clinton with a comfortable lead.
In an interview with The Times, Perot said Friday that the White House was dispatching campaign chairman Robert M. Teeter, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas to meet with Perot supporters Monday.
Bush himself will be in Dallas on Monday afternoon for a previously scheduled campaign appearance. Aides said that it was possible he would stop by the Perot meeting.
The Clinton contingent will include campaign chairman Mickey Kantor, Sen. David L. Boren of Oklahoma and retired Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Perot said.
The Texas computer tycoon told The Times that he would not announce his political intentions on the CNN "Larry King Live" show Monday night, as aides suggested on Thursday. He said, however, that he would make his plans clear "by the end of next week."
"The clock is running out," Perot said. "At least now both parties have (agreed to) come in to talk with us. . . . This is in my judgment what politics ought to be: rational and intelligent people having a rational conversation."
Perot said that his corps of volunteers "have a voice" now that he has won a spot on the presidential ballots in all 50 states. And, continuing to insist that his political plans depend on the will of "the people," he added that his supporters "want to listen very carefully to the Democrats and the Republicans, and then they'll make a decision on our course of action."
In an odd spectacle less than six weeks before the election, Bush took it upon himself to confirm the composition of the high-powered delegation his campaign will send to meet with the Perot supporters.
"We may make some converts there. I don't know," Bush said in an announcement hastily orchestrated by the White House on a day in which the campaign's attention was fixed on the new prospect of a Perot candidacy.
Bush nevertheless sought to portray the event as not unusual. He said Perot had "simply asked if we would do it, and we said yes, we'd be glad to do it."
The President later shrugged aside a question about why he was showing such deference to a non-candidate, suggesting that his campaign would seize any opportunity to "talk to 50 people, less or more, about our plans for reducing the deficit."
Clinton said Friday morning that it is "fine with me" if Perot runs.
"I think he's got a real contribution to make to the country, and if he wants to get back in the race, that's up to him, but I think there are all kinds of ways that he can contribute," Clinton said.
As the Monday meetings illustrate, Perot appears to be making good on his promise to force the two major-party candidates to confront what he considers the core problems facing America: the deficit, slow economic growth and competitive decline. He obviously intends to exert maximum leverage before making a final decision about running for President.
Perot, who galvanized a network of supporters across the nation when he began mulling a presidential bid earlier this year, said: "It's precious to me that volunteers are making the decision. If, after all thoughtful deliberation, they still want me to run, I would follow their wishes and be active."
After building expectations that he would formally run, Perot shocked his backers by announcing on July 16 that he would not. Earlier this week, he called that decision "a mistake."
The format for Monday's private meetings will allow each major party two hours to discuss and defend their candidate and platform before Perot and his 50 state coordinators, Perot said.
John P. White, Perot's issues adviser and a former official in Democrat Jimmy Carter's Administration, is to brief the delegates on Perot's plan for economic renewal, which includes substantial tax increases, limits on Social Security and other entitlement payments, defense spending reductions and a balanced budget.
The state representatives and Perot will huddle to digest the messages and decide whether either candidate offers a coherent plan for economic revival. Perot said he then intends to poll the state coordinators to determine their desires about his renewed candidacy.
Later Monday, Perot will appear on the Larry King program for a full hour to announce the results of the meeting, although he insisted he would not use the forum to formally announce his candidacy. He is also booking appearances on several other television interview programs in subsequent days.
Several volunteer coordinators who will be attending Monday's meeting--at Perot's expense--said Friday they do not expect to be satisfied by the assurances from the Democratic and GOP representatives and will urge Perot to restart his campaign.
Cindy Schultz, who runs the Perot effort in Wisconsin, said Friday that a poll of 8,200 Perot supporters in her state found that 92% felt that neither Bush nor Clinton was addressing the real issues facing the country. And she said that 89% wanted Perot to re-enter the race immediately.
A senior Clinton aide said that campaign representatives would tell the Perot group that Clinton endorses 130 of the 145 policy prescriptions outlined in the Perot platform as presented in Perot's book, "United We Stand: How We Can Take Back Our Country."
But, the aide insisted, there remain significant differences between the economic programs of Clinton and Perot, and the Clinton representatives would not be shy about spelling them out to the Perot gathering Monday.
"We'll say where we agree and where we disagree," the aide said. "Perot's program, as well as reducing the deficit, would kill economic growth for the next five years, and we don't need that."
Asked whether the Clinton team would try directly to talk Perot out of resurrecting his candidacy, the Clinton aide said: "I think that's his decision. I think he's got a real contribution to make to the country, and if he wants to get back in the race, that's up to him."
Charles Black, a senior adviser to the Bush campaign, said Teeter and other members of the GOP team met Friday to plan their presentation to the Perot group.
Black said the campaign officials were merely responding to an invitation to present the President's economic policy proposals and that it would be up to the Perot supporters to decide "whether Ross should get in."
The Bush campaign was clearly wary of saying anything that might offend Perot supporters.
In an indication of that sensitivity, Bush strategists continued to insist Friday that they could not be certain whether a Perot candidacy would help or hurt the President's struggling campaign. Asked directly whether the Bush team wanted Perot to stay out of the race, Black insisted: "It doesn't make much difference to us either way."
Clinton political strategist Paul Begala said that Perot's emergence as a declared candidate could hurt the Democratic nominee in several Western states that he had hoped to carry, such as Colorado, Wyoming and Washington. On the other hand, Perot's candidacy would probably push Texas into the Clinton column, Begala said
"I'll give up Washington for Texas any day," he said.
Recent polls in several states have shown Perot still preferred by 10% or more of the voters surveyed. But in most cases, that support had little effect on the relative strength of Clinton and Bush, changing the point spread between the two only slightly.
In California, a Times Poll conducted Sept. 10-13 showed Clinton leading Bush by 21 percentage points, whether or not Perot was included in the race
Times staff writers Douglas Jehl and David Lauter and poll director John Brennan contributed to this story.