With just four days to go, Ross Perot supporters plan to blitz California malls, beaches and pumpkin festivals this weekend in an effort to enlist enough voters to qualify the Texas billionaire's new political party for the state's 1996 election ballot.
Perot faithful were optimistic that they would have the 89,007 required voters by the deadline--the end of the day Tuesday. If not, Perot said the party's presidential nominee--whoever it might be--could win a spot on the California ballot as an independent, as Perot did in 1992.
Under state law, an independent candidate would have until next August to file petitions to get on the ballot. But should the bid to create a new party fall short in California, it presumably would call into question the extent of public interest and support for Perot's agenda.
Political analysts hesitated to speculate whether Perot's California drive would succeed, partly because of the long lag time between the collection of new registrations and the official count by the secretary of state's office in Sacramento.
One insider said he had not detected any "frenzy" on the part of Californians to create a new party dedicated to political reform. Another expert said such drives often peak in the final days before the deadline.
Russell Verney, executive director of United We Stand, America, the political organization Perot formed in the wake of his 1992 campaign, said the group had 53,000 certain registrants by early Friday, with another 4,000 expected by the end of the day.
"We're very confident," added Verney, who said his figures do not include any registration cards mailed directly by new party members to the secretary of state's office or turned in at the offices of county election officials.
The most recent registration figure, released by Secretary of State Bill Jones on Wednesday, was 10,217, including just 664 from Los Angeles County and 735 from Orange County, which was a bastion of Perot support in 1992.
But Jones and United we Stand officials noted that the official count lagged far behind the actual number of voters enlisted in Perot's proposed Independence Party, which for technical reasons is temporarily being called the Reform Party in California. Perot officials have claimed that it takes about a full week before a voter registration card is formally tallied in Sacramento.
As an example of the lag, leaders of the proposed Natural Law Party, seeking to qualify for party status by the same deadline, said they had turned in 110,000 registration cards but that fewer than 70,000 had been counted by the state by Wednesday.
Jones said: "Based on conversations with the counties as well as the Reform Party organization, we have reason to believe that there is a substantial number of voter registration cards in the pipeline, awaiting processing."
The Natural Law Party, formed by followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, began soliciting party members last February. The Perot-backed registration effort did not get fully under way until Oct. 5, when Jones told United We Stand officials that the deadline already had passed for its attempt to qualify the party by petition.
Whether the Perot party makes its goal may not be known next week. The secretary of state has until Nov. 13 to check and validate registrations and to certify whether the group qualified, spokeswoman Shirley Washington said.
Verney said the Perot organization collected about 22,000 new registrants last weekend, following the distribution of more than 1 million voter registration forms inserted in daily newspapers.
In an accompanying ad, Perot offered five key principles for the party:
* Establishment of the "highest ethical standards" for the White House and Congress.
* Balancing the federal budget.
* Campaign reform.
* Term limits for members of Congress.
* Creation of a new tax system under which any increase in taxes would have to be approved by voters in a national election.
Perot announced plans for the new party during a Sept. 28 interview on CNN's "Larry King Live." The drive to qualify the new party began first in California because the state has the earliest deadline.
Richard Winger of San Francisco, an expert on alternate political parties, said new party movements usually accelerate their work as the deadline approaches. In 1967, he noted, state officials declared the week before the deadline that the proposed Peace and Freedom Party had no chance of qualifying for the coming election.
Winger said the party's founders collected 50,000 registrants in the final four days and far exceeded the number needed. The drive occurred during a time of widespread demonstrations in California against the war in Vietnam.
Also qualifying for the 1968 election was the conservative American Independent Party, which became the vehicle in California for the third-party candidacy of then-Gov. George Wallace of Alabama.
The Libertarian and Green parties have maintained their spots on the California ballot since then.
Perot has insisted he is not creating a new party to fit his own presidential ambitions, and he continued to make that point Thursday.
"Politics being what it is, I'll probably get cut to pieces by the time we [finish the party-qualifying effort nationwide], and we'll need a fresh new face that hasn't been through that," Perot said during the taping of a news interview program to be aired Sunday in Sacramento. Perot participated from his Dallas headquarters via a satellite hookup.
"We're going to get California done," Perot said. "But everybody says: 'What if you don't?' We'll come back and run our candidate by petition like we did in 1992."
Qualifying as an independent on the 1996 ballot in California would require the collection of signatures of about 148,000 registered voters, regardless of party affiliation, the secretary of state's office said.