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Analysts Unsure Which Party Will Lose More Votes to Perot

By Robert Shogan
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

As the struggle for the White House enters its final week, a surge of support for independent candidate Ross Perot is generating uncertainty over the outcome and forcing the high commands of both major party candidates to review their battle plans.

Support for the maverick billionaire has roughly doubled as a result of his bravura performance in the televised campaign debates, and his supporters claim he can keep on climbing.

But Perot may have hurt his own cause Sunday by making new charges of "dirty tricks" against the Bush campaign and thus stirring a controversy that could distract attention from the stringent economic remedies and government reforms he is advocating.

On the other hand, analysts say such idiosyncratic behavior is probably part of Perot's gadfly appeal to the discontented voters who have flocked to his banner. They seem more concerned about sending a message of protest than they are about the Texas tycoon's suitability for the Oval Office.

At any rate, Perot's candidacy confronts both Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and President Bush with a conundrum.

"Everybody is wringing their hands over Perot," says Carl Wagner, a veteran Democratic strategist and a Clinton adviser.

Though Clinton still holds the lead in the polls, several surveys indicate his margin is narrowing. His strategists fear that if Perot makes inroads into his support the Texas billionaire could shift certain key states -- Michigan, Ohio and Colorado among them -- into Bush's column, paving the way for a come-from-behind Bush victory.

If the Arkansas governor follows his present course of focusing on Bush and all but ignoring Perot, he runs the risk that Perot's support will continue to grow.

But confronting him directly could boomerang by making Perot more prominent and making Clinton vulnerable to counterattacks.

"The danger in trying to point out Perot's weaknesses is that Perot can point out Clinton's weaknesses," says Democratic consultant Saul Shorr. "He can go back to his debate arguments and say, `If Bill Clinton is president, there'll be no real change.' If Clinton takes him on, he gives Perot the ability to do that."

Some Democrats counsel a middle course. "I don't think he wants to have a shootout with Ross Perot, but it is important for him to point out the differences," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who conducts surveys in several key states for the Clinton campaign.

Along those lines, Mickey Kantor, chairman of the Clinton campaign, charged on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday that Perot would raise taxes on the middle class and elderly. "That's where Bill Clinton and Ross Perot depart," he said.

Among Republicans there is also uncertainty about the impact of Perot's role in the campaign and how to deal with it, as reflected by Bush's tactics on the stump. After attacking Perot one day last week for having "nutty ideas," Bush reserved his fire for Clinton for the next two days, then hit back Sunday at the charges of foul play that Perot made against the GOP.

Bush pollster Fred Steeper argues that the president will be the chief beneficiary of further gains by Perot, because they will be made at Clinton's expense.

"Our polls show that Clinton has a ton of soft supporters whose second choice is Perot," Steeper said. Though Perot's early post-debate gains came from both major-party candidates, Steeper calculates that further increases in Perot's support will come from Clinton rather than Bush by a ratio of 9-5.

Helping the trend along, Steeper believes, will be the widespread belief that Clinton is the likely winner. "The media is convincing people that Clinton has already won, so they can go into the voting booth and vote for Perot in protest and think it would be a free vote."

But GOP pollster Vince Breglio, who worked for Bush's 1988 campaign, thinks that "in the short run" Perot poses a bigger threat to Bush than to Clinton. "A lot of his support comes from Republicans who say, `I have to take a look at this guy,' " Breglio said. "In the debate he told about how `I can deal with the deficit. I can deal with a government gone awry.' This is meat and potatoes mainstream Republican stuff."

One thing on which nearly all political professionals agree: Despite the current boom, Perot has little chance of winning the White House. In fact, some of Perot's own supporters view him more as a vehicle for protest than as a potential chief executive.

Take Agatha Marten of Clifton, N.J., a 1988 Bush voter who intends to cast a protest vote for Perot. Marten, who was part of a Los Angeles Times polling sample and agreed to talk to a reporter, complains that "it took Mr. Bush too long to realize we were in a recession" and finds "too many inconsistencies" in Clinton's explanations of his personal life.

"I'm throwing my vote away," Martens said grimly. But would she still vote for Perot if she thought he had a realistic chance of winning? "My God no!" she said..