Perot's Sword Could Cut Both Ways

At the White House these days, President Clinton's campaign crew is cheering Ross Perot on as he edges toward a second independent Presidential run. Their logic is simple: The maverick Dallas billionaire would steal votes from all-but-certain Republican nominee Bob Dole, guaranteeing another plurality victory for Democrat Clinton.

GOP operatives buy the same argument. But before the Clintonites break out the champagne and Dolies go into a funk, they should rethink this scenario. Growing evidence suggests Perot could siphon support from both parties--and might even cost Clinton the election. Consider a Mar. 15-17 Gallup poll of 1,008 adults that gives Perot 16% in a three-way race. Half of his support comes from those who would otherwise vote for Clinton, while 38% comes from those favoring Dole in a two-man contest.

OUTSIDER. Perot certainly sounds ready. On Mar. 19, he said he'd "give it everything" if his Reform Party drafts him as its Presidential nominee. Dole, fearing the Perot factor, said he'll try to dissuade him.

But Clinton may stand to lose, too. Louis Harris pollster David Krane says Perot's strength is among independents, young voters, blue-collar men, suburbanites, Midwesterners, and those earning $25,000 to $35,000 a year--groups critical to Clinton's bid. Among these middle-income workers, says Krane, Perot draws more votes from Clinton than from Dole. That spells trouble for Clinton in the battleground states of Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois, which were key to his 1992 win and will also be decisive in '96.

What's more, Perot hopes to adopt once again the "outsider" label--something neither incumbent Clinton nor veteran Dole can now claim. "Both should be nervous," says University of South Carolina political scientist Blease Graham.

Perot's outsider status could hurt Clinton most with independents. Without the billionaire in the race, Clinton clobbers Dole among these swing voters, 63% to 30%, according to Gallup. But in a three-way race, the President's lead over the Kansan shrinks to 47% to 24%, with Perot garnering 27%.

California, the cornerstone of Clinton's Electoral College strategy, could also turn sour for the President. A recent Field Poll showed Perot taking 7% from Clinton and 6% from Dole. What's more, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader wins 6% support--virtually all from the President's column.

Perot bristles at gripes by Republicans that he's a spoiler who would only reelect Clinton. In a Mar. 8 interview with BUSINESS WEEK, he said his ability to draw from both parties is "one of the best-kept secrets in American politics. Just look at the facts." The mythology about him as a GOP-killer dates from 1992, when George Bush's aides blamed their loss on Perot's 19% vote. Yet exit polls showed that Perot voters would have split evenly at 38% for Clinton and Bush had he not run. Most others would have stayed home.

That doesn't mean Dole shouldn't worry about Perot. Pollster Gordon S. Black says Perot's hard-core backers lean Republican, which means the lower Perot's support, the more it's likely to hurt the GOP. A recent Mason-Dixon poll shows Perot gets only 5% support in Maryland and 9% in North Carolina--virtually all from Dole. But as the Texan's vote increases, Clinton suffers. Explains Black: "At 14%, Perot pulls more from Dole than from Clinton. At 17%, he pulls equally from both candidates." At 20%, "he begins to pull more from Democrats."

So how should the major parties calculate the Perot factor? Clinton should want Perot to run--but not too well. And Dole should pray the Texan skips the race--or runs a strong third. For now, Perot is keeping them both guessing.

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