The Democratic Party, trying to counter Ross Perot and shore up support for an embattled President Clinton, has decided to launch a Perot-type recruiting drive intended to persuade millions of voters to become more active in supporting Administration measures.
The party also hopes that by collecting a $15 membership fee from each voter enrolled it can offset millions of dollars in contributions it stands to lose under Clinton's plan for reforming campaign finances.
Members joining under the grass-roots program would receive special information to help them defend the President's proposals, Democratic Chairman David C. Wilhelm told reporters Monday.
The Democratic Party, which Wilhelm said has between 500,000 and 1 million contributors, hopes to enroll several million voters in the drive. It may also offer a Democratic Party credit card.
Wilhelm credited Perot with demonstrating that "people want to be involved" in the political process and acknowledged that the Democratic Party would be sending out Perot-style messages through telemarketing and direct mail in an attempt to build its own army of activists.
Perot, who recently accused both the Republican and the Democratic parties of a "pathetic effort" to steal members from his Dallas-based organization, United We Stand, America, Inc., said it was "terrific" that the Democrats were planning their own membership drive.
"I think it's wonderful they're getting away from $1,000-a-plate dinners and from the extra-thousand dollars for a photograph with the President," he said, laughing. "My dream before I die is that I get a list of those who paid a thousand dollars for a photo with the President. They'd buy anything. I got a lot of things to sell 'em."
Perot was referring to a popular Republican Party fund-raising technique under former President George Bush. White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said Monday that Clinton has not engaged in the practice, but she did not rule it out for the future.
Perot, who has drawn huge crowds at rallies around the country, has declined to disclose the number of members in his organization, but said the recruiting is going well. On one day alone, 70,000 Americans signed up and paid $15 each to join his organization, he said last week.
While the Republican Party has not begun a membership drive, it recently ran full-page ads in newspapers soliciting contributions of $15 or greater to fight Clinton's economic package, which Republicans in Congress believe contains unnecessary tax increases and insufficient spending cuts.
Whatever the outcome of the Democratic membership drive, Wilhelm said the party is unified behind Clinton as he enters "a couple of critical, critical weeks of his presidency."
Although he said Clinton faces difficult challenges, he predicted that by this time next year the President will have persuaded Congress to pass most of his economic package, as well as reforms in health care, welfare and campaign finances.
With Clinton himself leading the lobbying effort, Wilhelm said he expects the House to approve Clinton's economic package by "a strong vote" later this week, even though opposition to the measure has been building.
Opposition has also increased in the Senate, but Wilhelm expressed confidence that with Democrats holding 57 of the seats, Clinton will get at least the 50 votes he needs. That, he said, would "send us into the health care fight with steam behind us."
The Democratic Party, he disclosed, has provided seed money for the formation of the National Health Care Campaign, an umbrella organization of groups formed to help build support for the President's health care program once it is unveiled.
Party funds allotted for the organization, he said, totaled "less than $100,000." The organization is being created outside the party structure because "health care reform will rise or fall on whether we have bipartisan support," he said.