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Perot Campaign Causes Jitters Among Bush, Clinton Advisers

By Howard Kurtz and Dan Balz
The Washington Post

President Bush Thursday accused Ross Perot of "nutty ideas" and "crazy statements" as campaign strategists for both Bush and Bill Clinton reacted nervously to signs that the Texas billionaire is having a renewed impact on the presidential race.

With Perot edging up slightly in several polls and airing the first of three half-hour commercials on network television, top aides to his two opponents complained that the press has failed to give the independent candidate the same scrutiny Bush and Clinton are receiving, particularly on his plans to raise taxes and cut federal benefits.

"The guy's spending $100 million, he's participated in three nationally televised debates and the press isn't really treating him as if he's a serious candidate," said Clinton spokesman Dee Dee Myers.

Perot poured $26.4 million more of his money into his campaign in the first two weeks of this month, nearly all of it for television time, according to the Federal Election Commission. All told, he has spent $46.7 million on the race, well on his way to the $60 million he has said he is willing to spend.

Unlike Bush and Clinton, who are accepting federal funds, there is no ceiling on what Perot can spend. After each receiving $55 million in federal funds, the Bush campaign had $23.7 million in the bank as of Oct. 14 and Clinton had $14.5 million left.

Perot's apparent success in the three presidential debates has shaken whatever complacency might have been creeping into the Clinton campaign and is "adding a new agony," as a Bush aide put it, to the president's reelection effort. In the eternal game of spin and counter-spin, each side insisted that Perot was hurting the other candidate more.

"I think we're going to continue what we've been doing," said James Carville, Clinton's senior strategist. "I think Bush is the one who's really got the problem, if you look at what's happening."

After nervously debating whether the Arkansas governor should directly challenge Perot over his economic program, Clinton advisers decided Thursday that they shouldn't overreact. They concluded it was more important for Clinton to stay focused on his own message and place a renewed emphasis on the battleground Midwest states during the last week of campaigning.

"You don't give the guy a completely free ride," one Democrat said. "But the last thing Clinton wants to do is turn it into a Clinton-Perot race either. There is no particular percentage in turning the big guns on Ross Perot."

Perot is drawing 15 to 19 percent support in four recent national polls, compared to 44 to 47 percent for Clinton and 28 to 32 percent for Bush. But Perot has turned around the negative impressions that many voters had about him before the debates and is now viewed almost as favorably as the president in some states, according to Democratic sources.

The candidates have clearly taken notice. On "CBS This Morning," Bush said of Perot: "I don't think people want to waste their vote ... . I don't think he can possibly win. I think he knows that. I think most people supporting him know that. They want to make a statement, a statement of anger or a statement of support for a guy that'll stand up, open a hood, fix it ... .

"He's got some good ideas and he's got some nutty ideas. And he makes some crazy statements, like he did the other night that we gave permission to Saddam Hussein to take the northern part of Kuwait. You can't make reckless statements as president."

Clinton's running mate, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) said on NBC's "Today" show that swing voters are "eager not to waste their vote."

In Dallas, Perot remained out of sight for the third straight day, leaving it to his press secretary, Sharon Holman, to declare that the campaign was becoming "a two-man race" between Perot and Clinton.

Holman was unable to say whether Perot will make a series of campaign appearances in the final days of the race. Nor could she say whether Perot, who this week berated reporters as "teenage boys," would be available to the press again.

Holman said the campaign is receiving "a huge swell of support" from volunteers. She said that 1,500 people showed up at the Chicago office to offer help and that the Dallas headquarters received more than 10,000 calls offering assistance Wednesday.

Perot has begun airing four 60-second TV ads and seven radio spots. In a half-hour "infomercial" on ABC last night, he described how he built up his computer company, the rescue of two employees from an Iranian jail and his efforts on behalf of POWs.

One 60-second spot seemed to capture the essence of Perot's anti-Washington appeal. It says the federal government "has poured $100,000 into a study of how to avoid falling spacecraft; $250,000 to study TV lighting for the U.S. Senate; $19 million to study gas emissions from cows."

In a 30-minute program to air on NBC Friday night, Perot rebuts the two parties' "wasted vote" argument. "Don't waste your vote on traditional politicians who promise you everything to get elected but never deliver," he says.