`The Air Has Gone Out Of His Ears'

By his own account, Representative Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) owes his narrow 1992 victory to the followers of Ross Perot. So it's no surprise that as a freshman legislator, he has been a strong advocate of Perot's government-reform agenda. But Horn's support for the North American Free Trade Agreement has Perotnistas vowing they'll never vote for him again, even if it means electing a liberal Democrat. Horn isn't fazed by the threats. "If that's what they want," he says, "so be it."

How times have changed. Just a few months ago, officeholders quaked at the thought of being targeted for political annihilation by the Dallas billionaire. But now, in the wake of Perot's disastrous debate performance and his failure to kill NAFTA, pols dismiss him as the incredible shrinking populist. Says Representative Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.): "He's gone from a powerful figure to someone who's laughable. There's no respect, no fear." Adds Alvin From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council: "The air has gone out of his ears."

PLENTY OF BOUNCE. Even in the fickle world of politics, the abruptness of Perot's plunge is unusual. In a March Gallup Poll, taken during the Texan's heady days of bashing the Clinton budget, Americans viewed Perot favorably by a 66%-to-28% margin. By mid-November, Perot's positive rating had plummeted to 30%, while his negatives climbed to 58%. Most respondents said Perot is no longer either believable or represents their views on important issues. And another poll shows that only 9% of voters claim to be strong supporters, down from a peak of 24% in March (chart). Adds Will Marshall, president of the moderate Progressive Policy Institute: "People are beginning to interpret him as a conventional politician, not an antipolitician."

Still, officeholders who cavalierly dismiss Perot may pay with their careers. In the past, he has shown amazing resilience, bouncing back from the nadir of his withdrawal from the Presidential race last July to win 19% of the vote. "I'm as close to bulletproof as anybody can be," Perot insisted in a session with reporters on Nov. 17. "I can't be fired. So we can keep on keeping on."

While Perot's Presidential hopes may have dimmed, he still commands a formidable bloc of very angry voters. "We're not going away until we begin to see some changes," says Jim Bigelow, Perot's New York State director. Republican pollster Frank Luntz estimates that Perot's minions could play a crucial role in deciding some two dozen congressional elections, particularly in Midwestern districts with declining manufacturing bases. "With NAFTA passing, Perot's personal political life is over, but his legions still survive," says Luntz, who polled for Perot in 1992.

Perot admits his organization has no game plan for 1994 and beyond. "We're in turmoil now, to be totally candid," he says. Indeed, his extensive state networks have to agree on a new agenda if they're to regain the political initiative. Some followers hope to concentrate on congressional reform, including a ban on foreign lobbyists, abolition of political action committees, a balanced-budget amendment, and term limits. Others favor creating a third party and recruiting Perotnista candidates for Congress. Still others want a jihad: They would concentrate on defeating NAFTA supporters.

Perot himself is crisscrossing the country to meet a pledge to hold United We Stand America rallies in all 50 states this year. He promises "a huge, formal membership drive" in every congressional district by Dec. 31. Beyond that, the Texan is keeping his options open. He is discussing a "surgical approach" in which he flexes his political muscles by targeting a few vulnerable incumbents in their parties' primaries. Still to be decided: whether Perot will name his own candidates or back others. Either way, his thinking is that "not many people vote" in primaries, and his hordes can make a difference by showing up enmasse. One possible target: House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), already reeling from a grand jury investigation into alleged financial irregularities.

COSTLY LEAP. But Perot faces some large obstacles. For one thing, many of his supporters are independents, and most states, including Illinois, require them to reregister in order to vote in primary elections. That, plus early filing deadlines in key states, means that Perot forces have little time to come up with candidates. By the week after New Year's, for example, deadlines will have passed in both Illinois and Texas. And if Perot decides to leap headfirst into partisan politics, he'll risk the tax-exempt status of United We Stand. That, in turn, would jeopardize Perot's ability to fund the operation out of his pocket with little or no disclosure of its finances.

Strategists for both parties are designing strategies to woo Perot voters even as they belittle the former candidate. They know that the 1994 elections are a critical test of the Perotnistas' political influence. So does Perot. "I don't care if I get beat up or not," he says. "The next time around, I won't be such a schoolboy." Perot's legions clearly are spoiling for a fight. "I can't tell you how upset people are," says Texas Perot organizer Bill Walker. "We'll remember in November." Even with Perot weakened, that's something that incumbents had better not forget.

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