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Both Parties Concerned by Threat of Revived Ross Perot Candidacy

By Jack W. Germond
The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON

Ross Perot's new threat to revive his candidacy has sent tremors of apprehension through the campaigns of both President Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton. The question of who might suffer more is a complex one that goes beyond the opinion polls.

The conventional wisdom among political professionals is that Bush has the most to lose from a Perot candidacy because of the possibility an independent campaign could cost the president the 32 electoral votes of Texas that he must have to win Nov. 3, and perhaps those of several other states where he is running even or only slightly ahead.

Polling data support that thesis. The most recent published poll in Texas has the race dead even. Although a private poll found Bush with a 6 percent lead late last week, that is not enough to sustain any significant defection to Perot.

In fact, however, there is a potential down side for Clinton, as well. There is a possibility that a Perot candidacy, fueled by heavy spending on television, could change the shape of a campaign the Democrat appears to be winning. As Peter Hart, a longtime Democratic poll-taker, put it, "I don't think you want to the change the dynamic when it's working in your favor."

Up to this point, the Democratic challenger has established himself as the favorite by concentrating his energy and rhetoric essentially on a single line of argument for "change": that the economy is in parlous condition and that the president is to blame. But the nature of the debate could be vastly different -- more focused on the deficit, for example -- if Perot became a visible third party, even if not a serious contender for the presidency.

Opinion polls over the weekend indicated that Clinton would suffer a slightly larger loss in popular support if Perot entered the field. The Time-CNN poll, for example, showed Clinton leading Bush by 12 percent in a two-way race, 11 percent in a three-way contest. Newsweek had the two-way margin at 10 percent, the three-way at 9 percent. A CBS News poll made it 12 percent and 9 percent, and a Gannett-Harris survey 15 percent and 14 percent.

The difference, however, is that Clinton has enough of a lead in critical states such as California (54 electoral votes), New York (33) and Pennsylvania (23) that he could more easily absorb the loss. But poll-takers generally have found Perot taking more from the president than his Democratic rival in states that are essential to Bush and that have large populations of white suburban voters to whom Perot has had the greatest appeal.

In Connecticut, for example, the most recent public poll showed Clinton leading 53 percent to 35 percent in a two-way race and 46 percent to 22 percent in a three-way race, with another 22 percent for Perot.

There is also the chance that Clinton could end up in a debate with Perot that could work to his advantage simply by giving the Arkansas governor a national audience before which he could demonstrate his competence. In 1980, a two-way debate between Republican Ronald Reagan and independent John B. Anderson worked that way. Although Anderson more than held his own in the debate, Reagan's stock in the polls rose sharply immediately thereafter as more voters decided he was not too great a risk for the White House after all.

The calculations over the Perot potential are somewhat colored by two factors. The first is the widespread belief in the political community that Perot's potential support is being overstated by the polls that show him with 15 percent of the vote or more. The history of the Anderson campaign, as well as that of George Wallace in 1968, shows that, as voters recognize they will be wasting their votes on a certain loser, they tend to move to one of the serious contenders in the final days. Anderson's support dropped from almost 20 percent to less than 7 percent after that debate with Reagan.

The second variable in the equation is Perot's history of running a de facto candidacy for several months, then abruptly withdrawing in July. One result is that he now is viewed unfavorably by almost half the electorate, three times the negative impression he carried last summer.

That, in turn, means he may have less ability to influence the race than the polls and current press attention would suggest.