The Search For Perot's Achilles' Heel

In just three months, Ross Perot has gone from being a blip on political radar screens to master of the universe. Or at least master of the opinion polls, where he leads both President Bush and Bill Clinton. But to turn a slim June margin into a November victory, Perot faces an immense challenge: He must not only hold together but also build on a coalition united by nothing but contempt for politics as usual. And he must pull this off without being seen as another conventional politician.

As leader of the pack, Perot is everyone's target. His foes, especially President Bush, are concentrating their attack on his volatile personality. Voters' first impression of him was overwhelmingly positive: a self-made billionaire who solves problems instead of talking about them. But recent news reports have shown a different Perot: a man who spied on employees and perceived enemies, a hot-tempered combatant with an almost paranoid edge, and an adventurer willing to join in the schemes of former White House aide Oliver North.

`TEMPERAMENTAL'? To derail the Perot express, opponents must portray him as someone who is "unpredictable and potentially reckless," says political scientist Earl Black of the University of South Carolina. That's why Vice-President Dan Quayle recently dismissed Perot as a "temperamental tycoon" who would shred the Constitution. But so far, the assault has had little effect.

Perhaps a bigger challenge for the feisty Texan is protecting his position as a nonpolitician--even as his still undeclared candidacy grows more credible and as he hires Washington veterans to run his campaign. To a large extent, Perot is still riding the strength of not being in either party. A recent Times Mirror survey showed that Desert Storm commander General H. Norman Schwarzkopf would do nearly as well as Perot in a race with Bush and Clinton.

Perot's opponents are trying to fill in the details by painting him as the consummate insider, a man who turned his close links with the Nixon Administration to business advantage. A recent Washington Post/abc News Poll suggests that Perot's past business and political activities present another line of attack: Voters overwhelmingly said they would be less likely to support any candidate who made a fortune doing business with the government or who had been a big Nixon campaign contributor.

TIGHTROPE WALK. Finally, there's the nettlesome matter of issues. Perot, who draws support from across the political spectrum, will find it hard to refine his positions without losing followers. As Perot has begun to get specific, he has started to sound, well, like a politician. Trying to avoid what he called "a political circus," he retreated from a pledge to testify before a Senate committee on his knowledge of Americans missing in Vietnam. It would have been his first sworn statement on the explosive subject. He has ditched bold talk about cutting Social Security benefits for the wealthy. And he reacted to supporters' jitters that he would raise taxes by moving perilously close to a "read my lips" pledge. Says Bush adviser Charles Black: "If he can't stick to one position through a short campaign, how can people trust him to stick with it in the White House?"

To get there, Ross Perot faces a very long tightrope walk. Yet even if voters develop doubts, the good news for him is that they show no sign of increased enthusiasm for either Bush or Clinton. A Perot victory remains improbable. But who would have bet just a few weeks ago that he would be leading the polls at midyear?

Part 2

Bill Clinton may have helped his cause with moderates and conservatives by picking a fight with Jesse Jackson over antiwhite comments made by rap singer Sister Souljah. But the Arkansas governor is cozying up to another icon of the Democratic left, New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo. His reason: Polls show Clinton trailing in New York, a state he must win to be elected President. In a June 16 cable-tv appearance, Clinton said that as President, he might name Cuomo to the U.S. Supreme Court. And while Clinton aides are cooling toward a Cuomo plan to tie the Presidential campaign more closely to the Democratic congressional leadership, Clinton himself continues to cite Cuomo as a key policy adviser.

Part 3

Demonstrating exactly what voters are fed up with, many in Congress still seem to believe that they can have it both ways: It turns out that 200 of the 280 House members who supported a balanced-budget constitutional amendment on June 11 earlier voted to ease restrictions on earnings by Social Security recipients. The provision would increase benefits by $7.3 billion a year--but without any offsetting spending cuts or tax increases.

Part 4

The Feminist Majority Foundation is stepping up its pressure to get Germany's Hoechst and France's Rhne-Poulenc to sell their abortion drug RU486 in the U.S. The group is urging shareholders--including big pension funds--to press the pharmaceutical makers to seek Food & Drug Administration approval of RU486. Trying to avoid the vicious politics of abortion, the European manufacturers had earlier chosen to forgo the U.S. market. So the group plans to leaflet shoppers who may buy products containing textiles made by New Jersey-based Hoechst Celanese Corp.

capital Wrapup'

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.