By all rights, Ross Perot should be a political has-been. Ever since he won 19% of the 1992 Presidential vote, the Texas billionaire has been on a downhill slide. Twice, he lost high-profile crusades to kill deals to expand U.S. trade. And even home-staters ignored his endorsement of Democratic Governor Ann W. Richards in 1994: Texans voted overwhelmingly for Republican George W. Bush.
So the Aug. 11-13 issues conference that Perot's organization, United We Stand America (UWSA), is sponsoring in Dallas will be a lonely gathering, right? Hardly. With 8,000 people expected, the event is the hottest ticket of the young '96 campaign season. All 10 Republican Presidential contenders are coming. Ditto House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Capitol Hill's top Democrats. President Clinton is taking a pass, but Democratic Party chief Christopher J. Dodd will stand in. Political pilgrims span the spectrum from Jesse Jackson to Pat Buchanan.
There's good reason why Perot's invite is so coveted. Even if his star has dimmed, Perot's '92 supporters are emerging as a crucial swing bloc. Their strong backing for Republicans was vital to last fall's GOP Hill sweep, and now Republicans see the Perotnistas as a key to regaining the White House. "The Perot movement--not Ross Perot--is the story of the 1990s," says the Texan's ex-pollster, Frank I. Luntz. "They have rejected the Democrats, but they have not embraced the Republicans yet."
GUESSING GAME. And Perot seems to want it that way. He's keeping potential rivals guessing about his '96 plans. The Republicans' greatest fear is that another independent bid would split the anti-Clinton vote and let the President retain office with less than half the popular vote. "Perot is like a fox," says GOP pollster Edward A. Goeas III. "He's keeping his options open."
Perot is seeking candidates' commitment to tackle such UWSA priorities as term limits, a balanced-budget amendment, and campaign reform. He has also entered the sensitive debate over runaway health-care spending with a new book calling for radical surgery on Medicare and Medicaid. "We can make sure our issues remain highlighted through the 1996 election," vows UWSA activist Fred W. Everett, president of Roca Foods in Marietta, Ga.
Polls show that Perotnistas are disenchanted enough with Washington to swing to either party. According to the Times Mirror Center for The People and The Press, Perotnistas tend to favor the new Congress' policies (49%-35%) and are happy that the GOP seized control (61%-24%). But they remain dissatisfied with the country's direction (73%-26%), and only 35% say the GOP "governs in an honest and ethical way."
So, as Republicans prepare to endure the scorching Dallas sun, they have reason to sweat. Their leaders pushed the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade--pacts virulently opposed by Perot. And while UWSA members applaud GOP deficit-slashing, Perot dismisses the party's tax cuts as "candy" to buy votes. They blast Republicans for failing to deliver term limits and a balanced-budget amendment. They also complain that GOP leaders show little interest in closing the "revolving door" that lets former government officials work as foreign lobbyists. "We've given the Republicans a chance, and neither party is interested in reform," says Patricia Benjamin, a UWSA volunteer in a New Jersey campaign-reform crusade.
"HE'LL MOVE IN." Nearly three-fourths of Perot backers surveyed by Times Mirror favor a new party, but UWSA activists concede they can't create an effective third force by '96. Perot has repeatedly denied harboring further White House ambitions, and most backers believe him. "I rather doubt he's going to run. It hurt him too much the last time," says Donald W. Layton, owner of Am-Vel Inc., a textile company in Greenville, S.C. and a UWSA activist. But nervous Republicans are skeptical. "Perot wants to stay in the limelight," says a Texas GOP operative. "If an opening presents itself, he'll move in."
Republican strategists are holding their breath. "Ross Perot is like a tornado," warns Luntz. "And it's impossible to predict either the path of a tornado or Ross Perot's political intentions." By kissing Perot's political ring early and often, Republicans hope that, when the wily tycoon chooses his course for '96, they'll avoid the storm.
TOP PEROT PRIORITIES
And why Republicans should be sweating
United We Stand leaders are furious at delays in campaign-finance reform. They're vexed at House Speaker Newt Gingrich's flip-flop: He no longer backs ending PACs.
ELIMINATING THE DEFICIT
Still peeved at the defeat of the Balanced Budget Amendment, Perotnistas bristle at delays in line-item-veto legislation. But they praise the GOP for holding down spending.
Perot supporters are unhappy about NAFTA, GATT, and the peso rescue.
Some California Perotnistas joined Republican leaders in pushing Prop. 187, denying benefits to immigrants. But they are cool on GOP attempts to reduce penalties on employers who hire illegals.
Activists wonder if the GOP can deliver fundamental change, following the House defeat of congressional term limits. The saving grace:
Most Republicans back this initiative, while most Democrats dissent.