With less than two weeks to the qualifying deadline, preliminary voter registration figures from California counties critical to Ross Perot's hopes of creating a new national political party indicate that so far, the Texas billionaire's effort is falling far short of the goal.
To qualify in California--the first, and perhaps most critical, test of the proposed new party's appeal--Perot and his supporters must register 89,007 new party members by Oct. 24. But on Tuesday, voter registrars for Orange and San Diego counties reported that only 437 people had signed up as new members of the proposed Reform Party.
Los Angeles County officials said that as of last Thursday--the latest data they had available--Reform Party backers had submitted only 22 registrations. County officials said they will not have a new tally until Friday.
Secretary of State Bill Jones' office declined to provide statewide totals, but the three Southern California counties provided nearly half of the 2.3 million votes Perot received in California when he ran as an independent presidential candidate in 1992. They were considered the most fertile ground for the sort of disgruntled voter Perot sought to enlist in the new party.
Moreover, officials in several other large counties targeted by Perot reported similarly low numbers--only three registrants reported in Sacramento County, none so far in Santa Clara, 10 in Ventura County, two in San Bernardino. Based on those early figures, one state official confidentially rated Perot's task as next to impossible.
Officials of Perot's United We Stand American organization, which is running the voter registration drive, insisted that the figures reported Tuesday are out of date and misleading because they do not reflect a large registration effort conducted last weekend. But the United We Stand officials declined to release any estimates of their own.
"We're very positive," said Leonard Crunelle, California operations director of United We Stand. But, he added, "it's going to be right to the wire."
"I think we're all optimistic," added Perot's spokeswoman Sharon Holman, arguing that the figures released Tuesday were stale.
Reform party backers said that volunteers who visited one county registrar's office saw "stacks" of registration forms that had not yet been processed.
Perot himself tried to boost the party in satellite television broadcasts Tuesday to local television stations. He also filled in as the host of a San Diego radio station talk show.
If Perot fails in California, even if it is a matter of legal logistics and lack of time, it will be difficult for his party to be a major force in the 1996 presidential campaign, observed veteran campaign consultant Darry Sragow of Los Angeles.
"If the Perot party is stillborn here, I think it is going to be tough to get it going in the rest of the country," he said.
Perot announced his plans for forming a political party during an appearance on the "Larry King Live" show on cable television Sept. 29. The first and biggest test was to qualify in California because it had the earliest deadline for creating a party for the 1996 presidential ballot.
There are two methods of creating a political party in California: by voter registration or by petitions signed by currently registered voters. The petition method requires 890,064 signatures.
Originally, the Perot organization launched a two-track campaign, seeking to sign up 89,007 registrants and also to get the 890,000 names by petition. But on Oct. 4, Jones disclosed that the deadline for the petition route had passed before Perot had started. Even though the official deadline for petitions is Oct. 24, Jones said the effective deadline was in late September because the law allows counties at least that much time to check signatures to make certain that enough of them were collected from legally registered voters.
The Perot forces immediately dropped the petition campaign and focused entirely on voter registration, as many California political experts had expected them to do in the first place because obtaining the smaller number would be easier.
But Holman said Tuesday that campaign leaders always thought the petition drive would be easier than a registration campaign because even though the number is 10 times larger, a petition drive does not involve getting voters to change parties or convincing unregistered persons to commit themselves to a new party.
As close as the Oct. 24 deadline looms, newspaper inserts sponsored by Perot this week urged prospective party members to return voter registration cards by Oct. 15 "to be sure you are registered by the Oct. 24 filing deadline." The message that accompanied a blank voter registration card urged: "Mail it immediately, but no later than Oct. 15, 1995."
Also Tuesday, officials of the Patriot Party of California, which also is seeking to get ballot status, announced they will work to get the Perot party established. The Patriot Party claims about 8,000 members.
Times researcher Rob Cioe contributed to this story.
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Ross Perot must obtain 89,007 new registrants to qualify his proposed third party for the ballot. Figures through Tuesday from county registrars indicate he is far from his goal.
89,007 needed by Oct. 24
Oct. 10: 474
Signatures collected in the 10 California counties where Perot received the most votes in 1992:
Los Angeles: 22*
San Diego: 332
Santa Clara: 0
San Bernardino: 2
Contra Costa: NA
* as of Oct. 5
NA = not available.