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Perot Likely to Be Invited to Debate Bush, Clinton

By Jack Nelson
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot is expected to be invited Tuesday to join President Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in three nationally televised debates, and Perot has already vowed to oppose "character assassination" and keep the focus on the economy.

Perot, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, said Monday that he would accept the invitation and would try to keep the debates focused on economic issues. "If they get into character assassination, I won't participate in that," the Texas billionaire said.

He accused Republicans of "trying to redefine their opponents' character" and of making "a massive effort" to redefine what has been written and said about him.

The first of three presidential debates will be held in St. Louis next Sunday. A panel of journalists will pose questions to the candidates.

The personal attacks by Bush and other Republicans in this campaign, however, have been aimed mainly at Clinton, not Perot. And Bush, signaling that he considers character Clinton's most vulnerable spot, has left no doubt that he will do what he can to exploit the issue during the debates.

An accreditation group for the bipartisan, 10-member Commission on Presidential Debates worked into the night Monday preparing its recommendation on inviting Perot. "I think you're safe in saying Perot will be invited," a commission source said.

Bush and Clinton have said they would welcome Perot to the debates. Republicans have been especially eager to have him take part, hoping that might change the dynamics of a race that has seen Bush lag far behind Clinton for months.

Bush has tried to undermine Clinton's credibility, with scathing attacks on his experimentation with marijuana in college and the efforts made to keep him out of the Vietnam War.

But an attempt by Perot to keep the debate away from the character issue and focused on the economy could pose a major barrier for Bush's strategy. Perot says character questions are not relevant and he "will not play the game."

He will deal with such questions "as gracefully as possible," he said, but will try to make the debates concentrate "on jobs, the deficit and the economy."

With the national debt at $4 trillion and the federal budget deficit at almost $400 billion, Perot said, "the country is on a collision course on the economy and if it happens, it will take several decades to put the economy back on track."

In the interview with The Times, Perot also said he's not worried about his poor showing in the polls, about being regarded as a possible spoiler or about the possibility of finishing a poor third in the presidential race.

"I'm not worried about getting beat up in the process of trying to force attention on the economic issues," he said, "It's irrelevant. Anybody who knows me knows that it would take me about 12 hours to get over it, dust myself off, and get on with my business."

In an earlier interview, Perot's former chief economic adviser, John P. White, who defected to the Clinton campaign, told The Times he had advised Perot not to enter the race, that he had no chance of winning and it would only hurt his credibility.

Asked to comment, Perot said, "Everybody's entitled to his opinion and I appreciate John would be concerned. My credibility is not important here. I don't worry about image. The point is 5 million people signed petitions and got me on the ballots of all 50 states and pressed me to do this (enter the race)."

Dismissing suggestions he may be a spoiler, draining off enough votes from one candidate to help the other win, Perot said, "It was already spoiled by both parties when I stepped in. My role is to clean up after a big, wild party."

Perot said he thought he already had had a positive impact on the presidential race by forcing Bush and Clinton to start addressing some of the economic issues.

"Both are now exposing themselves to the people in a way they never did before and that's healthy," he said. "Would you have ever thought you would see President Bush on a radio talk show before this?"