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Ross the Hoss


REMEMBER Bill Clinton? Tall guy, big shock of hair, Arkansas accent, talked a lot about being the next president of the United States?

Well, somebody buzz the FBI. He's vanished.

It's baffling how a presidential candidate can get lost while guarded by a dozen Secret Service agents. But ever since he popped up during the Pennsylvania primary a month ago, Mr. Clinton's blip has gone off the radar screen. Like Elvis, there are rumors that he's been spotted in a California shopping mall, West Virginia coal mine and an Oregon fast-food joint. Clinton sightings, like UFO photos, are unverified.

"He's campaigning hard coast-to-coast," insisted a Clinton spin doctor, promising his man will magically reappear at the Democratic convention.

If the FBI wants a lead, there's one suspect in the Case of the Missing Candidate:

Ross Perot has "disappeared" Bill Clinton.

For 30 days while Clinton wandered the hinterlands in "who-cares?" primaries, Mr. Perot dominated the political stage. Mr. Clinton has become a stunted, diminished candidate, while Mr. Perot soaks up his media oxygen.

There's room in the voters' psyche for only one Anybody-But-Bush candidate who's an agent of change. Right now, it's Ross the Hoss.

Admittedly, Mr. Clinton saw this Perot eclipse coming. "He [Mr. Perot] will hurt me most at first, Bush later on," Governor Clinton said in a mid-April interview. "At the end he could throw the election into Congress to decide."

The candidate's disappearing act can also be blamed on his muffled reaction to the Los Angeles riots. Sure, he made speeches in Birmingham, New Orleans and New York calling for racial healing. But because he's ducking the "tax-and-spend" Democratic stereotype, Mr. Clinton's response seemed mere hand-wringing.

While Mr. Clinton becomes a ghost on TV networks, Mr. Perot's drama -- surrounded by flags, banners and cheers as he turns in Texas ballot signatures -- rolls up momentum.

The phenomenon was clear in the latest Time magazine-CNN poll: Mr. Perot forging into the national lead with 33 percent, Mr. Bush 28 and Mr. Clinton 24 percent. Mr. Clinton's numbers are more embarrassing than such Democratic losers as George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis at this stage.

Ross Perot is breathing Mr. Clinton's air -- monopolizing the national focus when Mr. Clinton should be defining himself. At this moment in 1988, Mike Dukakis was sailing toward an enthused convention and an early, albeit illusionary, 17-point lead over George Bush.

Governor Clinton is clearly frustrated by Mr. Perot's bullishness in the polls and media. At times he jabs at Mr. Perot, "What could be better than being famous, rich and not exposed to the process?" More often he vacillates, saying he'd welcome the Texan into a three-way TV debate.

Only consolation for the Clinton camp is that George Bush is also taking his Perot licks -- probably with more lasting bruises. Bush handlers can't disguise their shock at polls showing Mr. Perot ahead in Texas and California.

Mr. Perot, whose dislike for Mr. Bush goes back to an old grudge, is openly gleeful about his clout over the the incumbent prez.

"Think how this whole thing is," Mr. Perot said on a C-SPAN interview Sunday. "We've got a guy with a bad regional accent who doesn't look like Robert Redford, who has a huge net worth, who says in one minute on TV if folks wants to put me on the ballot, I'd run as their servant. That this odd character runs ahead in Texas, California, Florida -- that's an unlikely scenario."

Got that right, Hoss.

So far, the Bush strategy toward Mr. Perot consists of hands-off skepticism: (1) Don't knock him, because he's like an East Texas rattlesnake that will bite you back, and (2) keep insisting the Perot steamroller is just a third-party boomlet that will fade.

It's Bill Clinton and George Bush who're fading from sight, not Ross Perot. Sure, he's corny, direct, folksy and plain. So's country music.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.)

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