Orange County, where Ross Perot scored one of his major successes in 1992, will play a pivotal role in the effort to secure a line on the 1996 California ballot for the third national political party announced this week by the Texas billionaire.
While other states have more lenient deadlines, Perot's organization has just a month to meet California's strict rules for getting the Reform Party--as it will be called here--registered in time for the primary and election.
To win a place on the ballot, Perot's group must gather nearly 900,000 signatures on petitions or persuade more than 89,000 voters to sign up as members of the new party. Much of that campaign will take place in Orange County, where Perot will spend Saturday morning during a weekend tour that begins Friday night in San Diego and ends in Northern California on Sunday.
In the 1992 presidential election, about a quarter of Orange County's voters backed Perot, providing him with more than 10% of his 2.1 million votes in the state.
In addition, the United We Stand America organization he founded continues to function here. It played a role in the 1994 congressional elections and has taken an active part in watchdogging the county's post-bankruptcy restructuring.
Many are enthusiastic about the new marching orders from Perot, which were announced nationally Monday on the "Larry King Live" interview program on CNN.
"Whatever he says I will do, including jumping off the Empire State Building to my death," said financial consultant Pete Sotos of Villa Park, who chairs one of United We Stand's congressional district committees.
The county's Perot cadres say they are primed for the ballot drive. Local volunteer leaders at the congressional district level were contacted early Monday by Perot's state or national offices, in advance of Perot's appearance.
Despite that enthusiasm, some members of the organization are skeptical of Perot's latest strategy to influence national politics through the nonpartisan United We Stand organization. They say any effort that commits to candidates rather than issues, as a third-party movement must, will lose credibility because it will not be able to hold those candidates' to their promises.
In particular, there is the fear that the third-party movement is a stalking horse for retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is considering a run for the White House.
"There is no question, I am leaning against this," said Roland Boucher, who previously organized a congressional district for United We Stand. "I think [a third-party effort] is a mistake. If the general wants to run, he doesn't need Ross' help. Let Ross give him a donation."
The effort to launch a third party will descend on California first because of the Oct. 24 deadline for qualifying for the March 26 presidential primary ballot. Secretary of State Bill Jones said Tuesday that winning a line on that ballot in less than 30 days is "a monumental task."
The Reform Party must by then get 89,007 voters to register in the party or gather 890,064 registered voters to sign a petition requesting the party be sanctioned. The party will be ineligible to participate in the November, 1996, election unless it selects its candidates in the state-sanctioned March primary, he said.
"Never bet against Ross Perot," cautioned Stu Mollrich, the veteran Newport Beach-based consultant. "He qualified for the ballot in all 50 states last time."
Mollrich suggested that the only route to the ballot is to register 89,000 people as party members. "Of course, this will be done with volunteers, and he can afford to hire as many volunteers as he needs," said Mollrich.
Orange County was one of Perot's electoral hot spots in 1992. He received 218,000 votes here, while then-President George Bush captured 392,000 and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton won 286,000. In garnering 24% of the vote, Perot bested his statewide figure of 21% and his national vote of 19%.
Perot's off-again, on-again campaign had even more support here at one time. According to a Times poll taken in August, 1992, 37% of voters said they had supported Perot before he quit the race in late July. Perot rejoined the campaign later that fall.
Mark Baldassare, a professor at UC Irvine and pollster, said Perot voters and his philosophy are an important phenomena in the county. Much of the Perot movement's philosophy that national government is floundering and can't be rescued with more spending rings true to voters who feel the same way about local government's handling of the Orange County financial crisis.
Largely, Baldassare said, the Perot voters in 1992 were Republicans and independents who were turned off by Bush's handling of the economy and taxes. Mollrich agreed.
Without knowing who the candidate of the Reform Party might be, it is virtually impossible to predict the Perot party's impact on the next presidential election. The United We Stand platform calls for a balanced budget, campaign reform, term limits and a change in the tax system, Sotos said.
"If it is Colin Powell, I don't know what would happen," said Howard Adler, a former county Democrat Party chairman. "It is too early to tell. Clearly, he is going to impact everybody. It is naive to think that he won't."
Republican County Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes rejected the idea that the Perot vote came from registered Republicans, but he agreed that Perot was a spoiler who allowed Clinton to carry California and the nation.
"Perot's campaign of 1992 was a vindictive and spiteful attack on George Bush because he had a personal score to settle with the President and had enormous wealth to do it with such venom," said Fuentes.
Democratic Party leaders believe a Perot party most likely will not hurt their base. The vote for Clinton in 1992 was about the same as the vote for losing candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Assessing the organizational strength of United We Stand America is difficult. Mollrich said it "is like holding water in your hand."
Platt Johnson, the organization's executive director for California, says Orange County has five or six chapters with about 100 active members and several thousand others signed up. Chapters were active in the campaign to defeat Measure R--the proposed county sales tax increase that was defeated in June--and have taken part in candidate forums and congressional letter-writing campaigns for the past several years.
Members tend to come out for particular battles or issues, said several local United We Stand leaders. Bruce Whitaker, who was a leader in the Measure R fight, identifies himself as a registered Republican and a United We Stand member.
The Perot announcement "took me by surprise, like most folks," Whitaker said. "Most United We Stand people helped bring about the Republican revolution [in 1994 congressional elections]. This seems to be signaling disappointment with that. A lot of the rank and file don't feel that way."
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Ross Perot was more popular in Orange County than he was nationwide. Final 1992 election results:
Clinton Bush Perot Orange County 32% 44% 24% Nationwide 43% 38% 19%
Source: Times reports